The disengagement generation

Three anti-'expulsion' activists stand by the actions they took in the summer of 2005 and voice criticism of the current establishment.

February 19, 2010 17:20
Leaving the synagogue in Atzmona during disengagem

Leaving the synagogue in Atzmona during disengagem. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

They could be called the “disengagement generation,” but they’d be more likely to call themselves the “expulsion generation.”

These are the many tens of thousands of demonstrators, mainly young, national religious loyalists, who believed that the combined mass of their bodies – which they used to block highways, surround Gush Katif and finally inundate the 25 Gaza and West Bank settlements about to be evacuated – would stop the 2005 “expulsion.”

They identified completely, then and now, with the 8,500 settlers forcibly evicted from their homes, which were then demolished.

“These people didn’t go through the same psychological trauma as the residents who were expelled. But ideologically, they’re no different,” says Orit Struck, the key activist behind a recently passed law granting amnesty to those arrested during the anti-disengagement protests.

The law, which the Knesset passed overwhelmingly late last month, will expunge the indictments from the records of some 400 protesters, as well as the arrest records of some 6,000 others. However, the amnesty will not apply to the roughly 80 protesters who had prior criminal records, or who were indicted for severe crimes of violence, such as aggravated assault on a police officer or causing severe danger to the public.

On the basis of interviews with three of the protesters due to get amnesty, they have absolutely no regrets about their actions; if anything, they feel they should have taken further measures to block the disengagement (although none supports violence against police, and certainly not against IDF soldiers).

The protesters interviewed all have a kind of openness and innocence about them. They grew up and continue to live in an environment in which their right-wing religious orientation is shared by virtually, if not literally, all of their family, close friends and neighbors. They’re used to having their political beliefs echoed in their circles.

The disengagement pushed them further to the right; the most popular political party among them is the National Union. However, the four interviewees (one is the wife of an indicted protester who herself got dragged out of Gush Katif without being arrested) do not count themselves among violent, racist extremists on the religious Right.

They don’t consider the current government a nationalist leadership, and fear that it will bend to pressure from within and without and relinquish more territory. They believe the country is controlled by a permanent establishment of leftists in the justice system and the media. They are convinced the Right is persecuted in this country, which ties into why they say they’re entitled to amnesty while the Israeli Arabs arrested while protesting Operation Cast Lead, along with the leftists arrested while protesting the settler “takeover” in Sheikh Jarrah, are not.

These are representatives of the disengagement generation – the largely national religious youth who, in the five years since that turbulent passage in Israel’s history, have come of age.

“IT WASN’T youthful rebellion, it wasn’t about going to extremes – it was natural. I felt at home going out to protest. First I’d go with my parents, then with my friends, then I’d go sometimes just by myself. You grow up inside it – feeling that whatever’s going on in the country affects you, and you have to take part in it.

“Everyone around me participated in the struggle against the expulsion in one way or another. I don’t remember anyone around supporting it. There were no voices of dissent,” says “Tali,” 24, who wishes to remain anonymous because she is a public employee.

She came to our interview at Tel Aviv University after a day-long conference related to the “helping profession” she’s in. Single, wearing a long, colorful dress and boots, she still lives in the Samarian settlement where she grew up.

During the evacuation of Gush Katif in August 2005, the area near Gaza was declared a closed military zone. Tali caught a ride from a sympathetic trucker delivering supplies, and she was arrested at the Kissufim entrance to the Strip for violating the order. She says she didn’t resist arrest, nor did police mistreat her, and after being held until the middle of the night at the station in Netivot, she was released.

Asked what separated her and others like her from the more vociferous, at times violent, demonstrators, she replied: “One, it’s a matter of character – I believe in gentle persuasion. Also, while I believe in the Land of Israel, I also believe in the Nation of Israel, so I wasn’t ready to curse an Israeli policeman or soldier for the sake of the Land of Israel. And then, while I was in pain over the loss of Gush Katif, I wasn’t one of those who also lost her own home, so I was able to control myself.”

Today she says the ruling Likud party “is on the Right in name only. We need national leaders who live their beliefs, who are rooted in the land and the Torah.”

She says she “understands 100 percent” why a soldier would refuse to evacuate settlers, adding that the IDF crackdown on such declarations by soldiers in hesder yeshivot is “motivated by a desire to hold back the rise of the national religious in the IDF.

“It’s obvious that the national religious presence in the IDF is getting stronger and stronger. And it’s not just in the IDF. This is something that’s happened to us from the expulsion – out of our loss of faith in the establishment, we’re now all the more determined to become part of the establishment in all areas of national life.”

Tali’s arrest record has not prevented her from working, although she says it would if she sought a security-related job. But her chief interest in getting amnesty is “wiping away the stain of being considered a law-breaker.”

Yisca Kop, 23, a national religious woman from Bnei Brak who studied at ulpana, a women’s yeshiva, in Kiryat Arba, had a rougher time in jail than Tali. Arrested with her older sister on the same charge – entering a closed military zone – and in the same circumstances – attempting to enter Gush Katif during disengagement – she says the jailers in Beersheba threatened to put her in a cell with rats and violent criminals.

“One of the jailers knocked my sister and yanked her back up by her hair,” she recalls, adding that they’d done nothing to provoke it. They were released after a night in detention.

In those days, she recalls, “I would go to the demonstrations, and of course I went around with an orange ribbon and bracelet. The rest of my family did, too. I did national service alongside people who supported the expulsion. I also had one personal acquaintance who did. But among the people close to me, no one did.”

Kop says the police intentionally “used a lot of violence against the demonstrators” because, as agents of the state, they “couldn’t deal with the truth we were representing. The state was afraid of the truth. So the easiest way to deal with it is just to repress it.”

A teachers’ college graduate, she wants to begin her career once her baby gets a little older, but says she can’t because of her arrest record – a problem the amnesty will alleviate.

IN THE WEST Bank settlement of Ginot Shomron, resentment against the state and its institutions, especially the justice system, remains.

“It hasn’t left a scar – the wound remains open,” says Amiel Shelter, 29, who was arrested for assaulting a police officer, damaging a police vehicle and interfering with a police officer in the course of his duty – charges he says were badly inflated.

Before disengagement, every house and car flew the flag on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Now many of them demonstratively don’t. Shelter’s wife, Tzvia, 24, who was dragged out of the Neveh Dekalim synagogue with hundreds of other protesters chanting “A Jew doesn’t expel a Jew,” hangs out the flag, while Amiel ignores it.

“For me, Yom Ha’atzma’ut is a day of fireworks. I only go out to see the fireworks,” he says. He used to revere the flag, but “I don’t connect to it anymore.”

Says Tzvia Shelter, “I don’t want our children to feel that way. I’m hoping his feelings will change back again.”

Before and during disengagement, the only debate among the settlers was how to stop it; there was no debate over whether it should be stopped.

“You didn’t hear anybody in favor of the expulsion,” says Tzvia Shelter, a nurse.

Today, say the Shelters, the IDF would find extremely few reserve soldiers willing to evacuate settlers.

“I wouldn’t,” says Amiel Shelter, a reservist with a tank unit. “It’s not even an issue.”

A truck driver in civilian life, he says the wound he suffered from disengagement will only be healed by a wholesale transformation of Israel: “Not until we go back to Gush Katif, not until we preserve a Jewish majority in Israel and not let foreign workers and refugees become citizens. Today it’s humanitarianism, tomorrow it’ll be a demographic problem.”

While the Shelters say the disengagement sharpened their already right-wing political views, they have not joined the extremes of Kach or any other blatantly anti-Arab movement.

“Definitely not,” says Tzvia Shelter. “I don’t want to expel the Arabs from Israel. I respect them, I treat them no differently than I treat anyone else. Some of the people here even say I’m too moderate.”

Her husband adds, “I have no problem at all with Arabs personally. I have more of a problem with some of the extreme leftist Jews, like Peace Now and B’Tselem, who incite the Arabs against us.”

Amiel Shelter was arrested after spending a week in Homesh, one of four dismantled West Bank settlements.

“The people from Homesh were taken to Kedumim, so I went to Kedumim and we blocked the entrance to IDF buses, as a gesture. I was standing off to the side, and I saw a border policeman knock down this teenage boy with his fist. The kid was lying on the ground, unconscious, and I started yelling, ‘Look what you did!’ and then I started banging on the police van to call an ambulance, and then the van started to drive off, so I was banging on the rear window and I was so keyed up that the window broke,” he recalls.

He spent “two or three days” in jail, then was released, but in the intervening years was called to court to answer for his indictment. He called Struck, who made contacts of her own, and eventually the State Attorney’s Office quashed the indictment. However, his arrest record remains, and now the amnesty law will expunge that, too.

“I believe that the pardons law will help repair the tears and heal the deep wound in Israeli society that was caused by disengagement, which is still bleeding and searching for healing,” said Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) prior to the January 26 vote, which passed 51-9 with Meretz and Arab MKs opposing and Labor MKs deliberately absent.

Struck, a Hebron settler and founder of a group called Human Rights for Yesha, says that in the three weeks since the law passed, she’s received “dozens” of requests from anti-disengagement protesters for help in getting amnesty. Arguing that justice has been done, she claims that in closed sessions of the Knesset Law Committee prior to disengagement, State Attorney’s Office representatives acknowledged that they would show zero tolerance for law violations, even minor ones, and that the purpose was to prevent violence and bloodshed, which they greatly feared.

The Law Committee went along with the policy on condition that once disengagement was over, the arrests on negligible charges would be cleansed from the protesters’ records, but prosecutors never upheld this condition, says Struck. “That’s what made the law necessary,” she says, adding that she learned of the closed-session testimony from then-Law Committee chairman Michael Eitan (Likud).

“The law enforcement policy toward the anti-expulsion demonstrators was harsher than the policy toward any other demonstrators,” she continues. “They arrested people for every stupid thing, they issued more indictments, they puffed up indictments.”

HOWEVER, CRITICS of the law say the opposite – that the anti-disengagement protesters are being singled out for lenient treatment, that they’re the only Israeli demonstrators who have ever been given amnesty en masse, and that they’re getting it not on legal grounds, but on political grounds.

Representing the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, attorney Lila Margalit unsuccessfully urged the Knesset to reject the law. In a letter to the Law Committee, she wrote, “[the law] will cause grave damage to the principle of equality before the law by establishing a private set of criminal procedures for a specific group of people… on the basis of their political positions. [The] message going forth from the Knesset will be that the protection given by the state to freedom of expression and freedom to protest is not dependent, first and foremost, on legal and principled considerations, but on the political power of one group or another. This is likely to create a dangerous precedent of politicization of the law enforcement system and harm the credibility of the justice system and rule of law in the State of Israel.”

Civil rights attorney Oren Shatz, who planned to appeal the law this week before the High Court of Justice, says there is “no precedent in Israel for such a selective amnesty.” He says that the same sort of claims made against police by the anti-disengagement protesters can and have been made by “over 800 [Israeli Arabs] arrested during the war in Gaza, by dozens of [leftist] demonstrators arrested in Sheikh Jarrah, by haredim arrested in Shabbat protests, by people arrested during the protests against the plea bargain for [ex-president Moshe] Katsav – by an endless number of groups of protesters from every political stripe.”

They all say they were treated unjustly, but there’s never been a blanket amnesty for any of them like there is now for the protesters of the disengagement, maintains Shatz.

The demonstrators interviewed for this article, however, say they’re in a different boat.

Tali insists that Israeli Arab and left-wing protesters are treated much more leniently than those from the Right.

“Whatever happened to the Israeli Arabs [during Operation Cast Lead] and the leftists [at Sheikh Jarrah], the police would have come down harder on them if they’d been right-wingers. The media, police, the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] and the courts are biased against the Right. Public opinion in Israel is more accepting of Arabs than of the residents of Judea and Samaria,” she says.

Kop maintains that police typically try to control demonstrations “peacefully. They try to reach an agreement with the protesters, but as soon as the Right protests, they start beating people and putting them in the hospital.”

Reminded that police killed 12 Israeli Arabs (and one Palestinian) in the 2000 Galilee protests, she says, “If the protesters had been Jews, I’m sure there would have been 100 dead Jews instead of 12 dead Arabs.”

Says Amiel Shelter: “The difference is that we fought for the Land of Israel and the State of Israel; we fought against giving the Land of Israel to the enemy. When the leftists and Arabs protest against Operation Cast Lead and demonstrate to bring IDF officers to trial for war crimes, are they doing it for Israel’s sake? That’s a joke. As for the haredim, they’re in a completely different category – I can’t explain it now, but they are. I know it sounds funny to say that we’re the only ones entitled to amnesty, and I think you have to examine each case for itself, but in general, I don’t think protesters against Operation Cast Lead should be given amnesty.”

Struck’s argument against the law’s critics is that the prosecutors’ testimony in the closed Knesset session, as told to her by Eitan, “proves that there was discrimination against us. With other protesters, it’s a matter of opinion, but we’ve got proof.”

She also says that with other mass arrests of protesters, very few indictments are filed.

Told of Shatz’s statement that indictments have been filed against some 250 of the 800-plus Israeli Arabs arrested during Operation Cast Lead, Struck says, “I’m not aware of that. I don’t know if it’s true.”

Asked then if Israeli Arabs, leftists, haredim or other protest groups would, in her opinion, have the right to amnesty if it were proven that the law enforcement system had discriminated against them, Struck replies, “Why not? What separates a democratic country from an undemocratic country is equality before the law.”

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