Caught in a loop

A decade later, furious youths on the far Right are taking aim at the prime minister.

noose 88 (photo credit: )
noose 88
(photo credit: )
Meir Amir wants Ariel Sharon dead - perhaps as much as Yigal Amir wanted Yitzhak Rabin dead. Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin 10 years ago, in the hope that killing the prime minister would foil an Oslo process which members of the Right condemned as a surrender of parts of the Land of Israel. Now, Meir Amir (no relation) is furious at Sharon for ordering the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip in August that left his family, settlers from Atzmona, without a home. In the mobile home encampment where the 17-year-old now spends most of his time, he has gathered spare planks and built a clubhouse, from the rafters of which he and his friends hung empty beer bottles from the rafters. Then Meir strung nooses with nameplates and pictures of Sharon and other "odious" characters, including the prime minister's son, Likud MK Omri, and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. To top it off, the boys dedicated the site to Eden Natan Zada, the Jewish terrorist who opened fire on Arab passengers in a crowded bus driving through the town of Shfaram. The 19-year-old, who had legally changed his address from Rishon Lezion to the West Bank settlement of Kfar Tapuah, murdered four Israeli Arabs before being beaten to death by an angry mob. Yet young Meir Amir is different from Yigal Amir, whose eyes still burn with zealousness and purpose, and who remains energetic, smiling, and even charismatic a decade after his infamous assault on Rabin in Tel Aviv's Kikar Malchei Yisrael. Meir's eyes are dulled by depression; with his stringy arms and dark blemishes of acne, he doesn't look like a potential terrorist or a would-be assassin. That's a good thing, because he isn't one. But his recent antics are a sign of just how angry people are on the fringe - and his community's reaction is an example of how conflicted they are about how to confront that anger. Two weeks ago, the head of the Atzmona evacuees, Dudi Reich, stormed Amir's shack, cutting down the nooses and "rescuing" the Israel leaders. An incensed Amir put them up again. Last week, only Sharon and OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, himself a settler and religious, dangled from the symbolic gallows. Boys will be boys, say some residents of the encampment, also called "City of Hope," as they walk past the playhouse on their way to the communal washer and drier, or towards its open-air eating area. Others say the boys (though some just blame Amir) are expressing uncontrollable anger. As compassionate adults, they can understand the incitement, because the disengagement wreaked so much personal and psychological damage. HAS ANYTHING changed in the decade since the Rabin assassination? According to settler leaders, ultra-rightists and analysts, the real fight has just begun. While those both willing and able to sacrifice their lives to kill their fellow Jews remain a marginalized and closely watched few, support for the State of Israel and its symbols, among a larger portion of the Jewish public, is crumbling. Atzmona is a perfect example. Few Gaza Strip settlements, it is argued, handled their eviction with as much dignity as Atzmona. On that blistering August day, community leader Reich told Ynet, "We agreed that we'll safeguard the army's humanity and the army will safeguard our humanity." Then he and the commander of the troops who evacuated the settlement embraced. The community's 70 families left peacefully. Like many mainstream settlements, Atzmona's relationship with the army runs deep. This year, two of its boys will be heading to the IDF's legendary commando unit Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), and another handful to other top-notch fighting units. On the other hand, Meir Amir and some other youths are doing what they can to avoid the draft - Meir has torn up three draft cards, says his father, Rabbi Mordechai Amir - and girls throughout the settlements now want nothing to do with young male soldiers who took part in the evacuation. West Bank settlers now bitterly debate whether to fly the flag of Israel in their synagogues, and an increasing number of young men and women no longer include the appeal for the security of the State of Israel in their prayers. Some of Israel's mainstream Religious Zionists now doubt whether they'll ever convince the rest of the country of the elemental necessity of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. Settlers are just as devoted to the state as ever, leaders say. But one must ask: Would the people of Atzmona, prior to their eviction, have tolerated seeing an effigy of their prime minister dangling from a noose? THE SPECTER of the Jewish terrorist continues to haunt the Shin Bet security service, which took much of the blame for Rabin's murder. The agency monitors incidents of incitement as possible preludes to violence; the Jewish Division is always watchful for terrorist cells. But the elusive loner remains the greatest threat. The moderate settler leadership is increasingly concerned. In an open letter to his constituency over the weekend, Binyamin Regional Council Head Pinchas Wallerstein decried the slugging of a Paratroopers Brigade commander by hilltop youth trying to stave off the IDF's dismantling of an illegal outpost. Spurred by the photograph of the officer's black eye at the Elon Moreh-area hilltop on the cover of most Israeli dailies last Friday morning, Wallerstein wrote: "I beseech you, youth of Yesha [Judea and Samaria], not to allow those few extremists among you to determine your direction. They will only succeed in bringing destruction upon you and diverting the values upon which a promising future for the Jewish nation in the Jewish land is built." The lieutenant-colonel's "shiner," and the violence captured by photographers, stunned Wallerstein. At dozens of protests he had overseen, passive resistance to the evacuation of several key settlements was the norm. Nary a punch had been thrown. Now they are flying by the dozens. Meir Amir was at the fracas at Elon Moreh. When he returned, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the Jewish National Front, a party affiliated with the banned Kach movement, he seemed tired. He had worked feverishly alongside dozens of other youth to set up five new outpost settlements atop the West Bank hills. Although he had mostly stayed out of the fray, he also had scuffled a bit with the IDF. As he recounted his adventures of the previous night, he celebrated with a bottle of Goldstar beer. RABBI DANIEL SHILOH, a member of the influential Yesha Rabbinical Council and the head rabbi of the northern Samaria settlement of Kedumim, has stewarded the settlement movement through most of its achievements in the past 30 years. His bespectacled face and triangular beard appear in the black and white photos that survive from the establishment of the first settlement in Sebastia in 1975, and in the painful defeat of the evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. After years of activism, Shiloh is at once frail and sprightly. He shuffles energetically around his home in the settlement of Kedumim on bow-legged yet athletic legs, dutifully attending his wife, who calls from her bedroom. Throughout those years, Shiloh - a former paratrooper himself - zealously nurtured the image of the settler as an integral part of Israeli society. Solid citizens and courageous fighters, the settlers tried hard to show the rest of the country that in truth, it is they who are "beautiful Israel," that they too are indispensable to the state. But his passion has waned. Members of Shiloh's own community feuded bitterly over the question of posting the Israeli flag in the community's synagogue. Shiloh, who deplores violence and believes the flag has a place in the synagogue, says he still loves the state. At the same time, he is concerned over the direction it has taken. "It is far worse than I first thought it would be in August," he says of the trauma the evacuation stirred up in the settler movement. It has been like witnessing a car crash, he says, and seeing the innards of the vehicle and its passengers spilt out onto the road. "We really thought that we could change government policy," says a dejected Shiloh from his dining room table. The real trauma of the disengagement, he says, and the real damage, "is that contrary to what our slogan says, we showed the world that a Jew can expel a Jew, that Jews will leave their homes if forced." The rabbi views armed or other resistance as a last resort. But political pressure, the settler leadership learned, failed. "If someone is doing evil, sometimes it is justified to fight for my freedom, if my government surrenders to people who hate me - it is an ideal to die for," says the man who staunchly rejected settler violence. "But because we are all Jews, this will not lead to civil war. Resistance will be localized - it is not as if we are going to bomb Tel Aviv." Shiloh then gets to the point: "In humanitarian terms, it will be justified to fight for our rights if Israel tries to do this [type of evacuation] again," he says. THE HISTORY of the settler movement is punctuated by the actions of radicals who either jump-started trends or set off a cascade of events that changed Israeli-Palestinian history. On the first day of Pessah in 1968, radicals, considered dreamers at the time, moved into the Hotel Park, creating the first Jewish settlement in Hebron, and indeed in the West Bank. They would not budge from the Jew's second holiest place, and remain there today. In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron, killed 29 worshipers in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs, permanently straining Israeli-Palestinian relations. And on November 4, 1995, Yigal Amir, a devotee of the Greater Israel movement, assassinated Rabin, arguably setting into motion a succession of failed governments. More than two-thirds of Israelis believe that the next political assassin is on his way, according to a Yediot Aharonot poll last weekend. That poll also showed that the vast majority of Israelis (83 percent) believe that Amir was not a "wild weed," but that "there are more like him." Experts believe that Yigal Amir's successors, however, will likely not be young men like Atzmona's Meir Amir. They'll be mysterious men, quite hidden from the public eye and from the prying ears of the Shin Bet. Former Shin Bet deputy director Menachem Landau lists two types of Jewish terrorism. The first are revenge attacks for the murder of Israelis or Jews. The second are attacks whose primary targets are Israeli policy: they hope to send politics veering off in an uncharted direction. On November 4, 1995, Landau was in his Paris home - he directed the agency's VIP security in Europe - with Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon. Then the call came that Rabin was assassinated. Their worlds changed. That night, Landau recounted, Gillon predicted the murderer would be a resident of "Ra'anana, Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba, something like that." Anything but a settler. Given the time he spent in Hebron, his friendship with many far-right activists and weekends spent in the West Bank and Gaza, Yigal Amir, who lived in Herzliya, wasn't far from being a settler. But Gillon's point was well taken. The same goes for Israel's future terrorist or assassin, says Landau. He'll likely be a loner, perhaps somewhat unstable. But in order to launch a strategically damaging attack, like severely damaging the Temple Mount, or killing a ranking minister - the terrorist would have to be very quiet and very good. "Only a Gog-and-Magog attack could stop the process we're heading into," says Landau. A BANNER hanging from the gate of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar reads: "at war." It appears as the kind of thing a hotel guest would do, in hanging a "do not disturb" sign outside his room. After hearing Meir Amir's story, "B," a teacher from a nearby school in Yitzhar, says the phenomenon of stridently anti-Israel hate speech is very much on the rise. "The disengagement did all the work for us," he observed of his group of messianic post-post-Zionists. The disengagement drove a stake through settler-Israel relations, shoving mainstream settlers, or their supporters, B says, towards the right. People like B, nourished on the dream of Greater Israel, have set up their homes on illegal hilltop communities. They farm the land, often herd sheep, and live like their forefathers; many foreswear drinking Coca-Cola or consuming other "intoxicating and unhealthy" foods or beverages. Their goal is a Land of Israel without Arabs. But they aren't rushing to kill or deport them. B, who asked to remain anonymous, speaks in the halting manner of someone who weighs his every word. He takes the long view of history. The Jews will wait until the present secular and artificial state of Israel dies. If a Palestinian state arises, they say, so be it. They will out-live and out-produce (demographicly) those Arabs. Eventually the Arabs will leave or be driven out, and a religious Jewish state or monarchy will arise, with religionists and sages as its ruling oligarchy. Talk of killing the prime minister, and certainly the physical act of effigy making, noted B, is the "kind of language that I remember from the Od Yosef Chai group that used to go to Josef's Tomb [in Nablus]. Some of these guys eventually became the men who tried to blow up that girls school and the Shalhevet Brigades [who killed 8 Palestinians on the roads]." (The US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which considers Kach a terrorist organization, lists 41 alternative names for the group. Former Shin Bet officer Landau notes that the group has splintered off in so many directions that monitoring it becomes increasingly difficult.) In the hilltops, hatred of the prime minister and other top officials is hardly unusual. Violent activities against local Palestinians are common. The use of the effigies, says B, is just one step away from action. David Ha'ivri, a former Kach leader and the founder of Revava, a rightist organization whose motto is "to change the rules of the game," agrees. The dilemmas dividing communities - such as whether or not to recite the prayer for the safety of the State of Israel - constitute "a milestone in a process that has been rolling for a long time." For those who prowl the farthest reaches of Israel's political spectrum, the mainstream national religious community's schism with the State is a welcomed step towards the end of the modern State of Israel. "One day, we will all be [Rabbi Meir] Kahane," says Ha'ivri. Kahane, assassinated in 1990, preached for a strong, Jewish, self-sufficient and Arab-free Israel. Ha'ivri coyly avoids advocating anything to do with violence. He knows he is monitored, that "someone is listening." And they are. The Shin Bet closely monitors Ha'ivri and many of his comrades at the Tapuah settlement. Every six months or so it raids his home and confiscates his computers. Eden Natan Zada, a Kach devotee, was a frequent visitor at Ha'ivri's and other locals' homes. Extreme groups like to believe themselves as part of the consensus. The various Kahane offshoots are no different. "I see that a large percentage of the population is unwilling to continue its devotion to the blue and white [a term for the State of Israel]," says Ha'ivri. For these men, the modern State of Israel is "a big detour." It is a matter of time before Kahane's ideas crystallize. The Jews, after all, have been kicked around for the better part of 2000 years. The difference between the policy of the state and that of the meta-Zionists is that the latter adhere to rigid policies while the former have none at all, says Ha'ivri. Israel is a state that lacks eastern borders and has no constitution, says Ha'ivri, who believes there is no better constitution than the Torah. The Israeli government's pursuit of those two crucial parameters of a state is muddled at best, incompetent at worst. "If the land is not ours," asks Ha'ivri, "why the investment in the Sinai, in the West Bank, in Gaza to begin with?" According to him, Henry Kissinger was only half right in his assessment that Israel "has no foreign policy, only domestic politics." Even the politics are incoherent, says Ha'ivri. Ha'ivri is unconvinced that the rising rhetoric will yield action. But the government, the Knesset and the State betrayed the Zionist idea. The government, he argues, has ended its historical role and sooner or later most Israelis will comprehend that. It is up to others, perhaps to his own people, to define the lev hayehudi, or the Jewish heart. Meir Amir's plans, meanwhile, are simple. A farmhand since the first grade, Amir now hopes to use savings to buy a farm in Yated, along the Egyptian border, with a few horses and a small herd of sheep. One day, he says, he'll move it all to a West Bank hilltop.