Unsettled in Judea and Samaria

Settlers in Ofra and Amona reflect on disengagement and gear-up their struggle against convergence.

gush kat main 88 (photo credit: )
gush kat main 88
(photo credit: )
The big blue sign at the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Ofra reads: "After the shock of the Yom Kippur War, a group of youths took it upon themselves to fence off the IDF post on Mt. Hatzor north of this spot. On May 20, 1975, they did not return to their homes in Jerusalem. They slept in the 'abandoned Jordanian army camp' that since then has become Ofra." Beyond the sign live upwards of 4,500 people, mainly in two-story houses in neighborhoods that stretch across hills about 10 kilometers northeast of Ramallah. There is a large synagogue, a Mifal Hapayis community center, a religious school complex, lush landscaping, parks and playgrounds. Azriel Simhoni came here 30 years ago with his family, the 15th to settle in Ofra, and is asked if he can imagine the government bulldozing Ofra like it did Gush Katif. "I think it could happen, which I never thought until last summer," says Simhoni, 60, a soft-spoken native Jerusalemite whose voice falls to a hush when contemplating such a thing. The settlers' long, dogged, desperate battle against Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan failed, and now, Simhoni notes, the street campaign against Ehud Olmert's consolidation plan will have to be that much more massive and turbulent to make an impression, to affect the political decision-making process. "There's a great feeling of disillusionment among our people," he says. "Everyone knows it could happen here, too." Ofra, home to several religious settler movement "aristocrats" such as Yehuda Harel, Yehuda Etzion, Uri Elitzur and Pinchas Wallerstein, is not near the Green Line, not inside the route of the security fence, not inside one of the "large settlement blocs" Olmert says he wants to keep. Instead, it falls into the category of "isolated settlements," and as such its population is numbered among the tens of thousands, possibly as many as 70,000 settlers, who stand to be uprooted from their homes if the consolidation plan goes through. Olmert has his work cut out for him; this is not a sure thing by any means. But the settler movement, which had grown confident to the point of serenity that it could beat back any attempt to stop its growth in the territories, let alone destroy what it had already built, is not what it used to be. If the fight over disengagement was between two great heavyweights, Sharon and the settler movement of 2004-5, the fight over consolidation is starting out between a prime minister who is no heavyweight and a settler movement that is bleeding, hurting and traumatized from the beating it took last August in Gush Katif and northern Samaria. They're not giving up, they're going to try to beat this in the streets, the cabinet and Knesset, and they think they have a chance to win - but more because of their opponent's weaknesses than because of their own strengths. They've lost their confidence. For nearly two years, the settlers threw everything they had at the disengagement plan - and Gush Katif fell in six days. Their leadership and strategy failed, yet there are no new leaders and, as yet, no new strategy for the even graver, possibly final conflict they find themselves in now. One lesson seemingly taken by most ideological settlers from the lost battle against disengagement is that it wasn't aggressive enough in the street, that the tens of thousands of settlers who tried to stop the destruction of Gush Katif with their bodies, especially at Kfar Maimon, Sderot and Ofakim on the eve of the pullout, should have tried to overpower the thousands of police and soldiers and forced their way into the Gush to become human shields. "Kfar Maimon ended up like Woodstock," recalls Shimoni. "I'm against using violence, but we should have been tougher, even if it meant getting beaten. It worked in Ukraine and Nepal." MK Benny Elon, leader of the National Union party whose election to the Knesset spared him prosecution on sedition charges for co-organizing the violent anti-Oslo demonstrations of Zo Artzeinu (This Is Our Land), agrees. "We should have confronted the police in Ofakim - not to hurt them, but to do like they do in Europe, not to be afraid," he says. Yet when I ask settler activists specifically how they could have been more forceful without being violent - how tens of thousands of demonstrators, without using violence, could have rammed their way through phalanxes of tens of thousands of police and soldiers there to block their way into the Gush - no one has an answer. In general, they carry the conviction that they have been victims of police and IDF violence, and that nearly all acts of settler violence at demonstrations came in reaction to the brutality of the security forces. They sound as if blocking highways, slashing tires and crashing lines of police and soldiers does not justify any official use of force in response, but that such a response does justify the demonstrators' escalated "resistance" - a scenario that was played out at protest after protest. The settlers' complaint could be phrased: "It all started when he hit me back." About a kilometer behind Ofra, at the end of a path leading up to another ridge, stands the outpost of Amona. Many if not most Israelis probably think Amona was torn down by the IDF during the infamously violent clash between thousands of settlers and thousands of troops on February 1. But today there are 37 families living in Amona in "caravans," or mobile homes, with little gardens and cars parked in front. They string out along two paved roads; one could speak of "Upper Amona" and "Lower Amona." They first started moving in nine years ago. There is no Israeli commitment to the Bush administration to tear down the 37 caravans of Amona - only outposts built since February 2001, when Sharon took office, are on the list. What got torn down in the battle of Amona were nine permanent houses, not caravans, that were built without permits only about 50 meters away. The nine mounds of rubble - two-meter-high piles of concrete blocks and twisted metal rods - are still there, one next to the other. It's like a preserved memorial site, like the spot where Rabin was murdered. The graffiti scrawled on the road during the confrontation recalls the mood of that day: "We don't need Hamas, we've got Olmert." "Olmert is finishing what Sharon started." "The government of Israel = Judenrat." "Death to the Arabs." "IDF victories = The Six-Day Expulsion of Jews." If the evacuation of Gush Katif was a model of restraint, sensitivity and efficiency that won public approval for the government, the melee at Amona is seen as a clumsy operation in which the police lost their cool against the demonstrators' violent provocations, and matched the protesters' wildness with their own. Footage of police on horseback charging into crowds, swinging their batons recklessly, have been shown over and over on television. Possibly the most indelible image is of MK Effie Eitam standing in the middle of the fray with blood pouring down his face from his wounded skull. Police investigators' examination of the footage, along with an eye-witness account by Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea, indicated that Eitam was probably hit not by a police baton but by a concrete block thrown by the demonstrators; this, however, has been forgotten while the image remains, along with the images of National Union MK Aryeh Eldad's bandaged, broken arm, and the scores of wounded demonstrators being wheeled in and out of the hospital. About 150 protesters were injured, some very badly. The worst injured of all, however, was a policeman who was knocked unconscious by a flying concrete block and hospitalized in critical condition. Another policeman was stabbed in the stomach. The toll of injured on the troops' side reached nearly 100. But in the arena of public opinion, the settlers won the battle of Amona because they took the brunt of the violence, and because the police so clearly overreacted. During the struggle over disengagement, the "orange" camp tried non-violence - holding hands and forming a human chain while holding banners that read, "Our love will triumph" - while a few radicals tried serious violence, like spreading a potentially lethal mix of oil and "ninja" nails on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, and clearing out bus stations by leaving phony "suspicious objects" containing the note, "The disengagement will blow up in our faces." In the climate of fury over Sharon's plan, a couple of Jewish fanatics murdered Arab bus riders in Shfaram and Palestinian laborers in the West Bank. None of these tactics worked. The public ignored the mass non-violent rallies, and was repelled by the incidents of violence, which put the settler movement on the defensive and gave the government a freer hand to proceed. However, the Amona tactic of callibrated violence that provokes a "police riot" in front of the cameras may be a winning combination. At least some settlers think so. "Of course that was a victory for us," says Ya'acov Binyamini, a married yeshiva student who has lived at the outpost for nearly three years and who was present at the Feb. 1 protest, but didn't take a hand in it - a condition he had to agree to for his IDF commander to grant him a furlough for that day. "There was a lot of blood that day - it scared me," says Binyamini, 27, walking up the road to the daycare center to pick up his two young sons. But the clash had the desired effect, he says. "Olmert was supposed to tear down three more outposts right afterward, but he chickened out. And then when they evacuated the house [owned by a Palestinian but claimed by a Jewish family] in Hebron, the army didn't dare raise a hand to anyone. "A lot of people came here for the struggle. They dug trenches, they blocked the access roads," continues Binyamini, smiling over the memory through his dark beard. "The idea was to burn tires and things like that but not hurt anyone," he says. Regardless that the settlers stockpiled huge stores of concrete blocks and stones at Amona, Binyamini insists, "The police came to bust heads, so they got rocks thrown at them. I'm against violence, but if they beat us we should give them hell. The protests against the disengagement were too passive, it was a mistake. We have to be like the protesters in France and Russia, we have to turn the country upside down. If they would have done that earlier, the government never could have destroyed Gush Katif. "Amona was the turning point," Binyamini asserts. "Olmert came here to bust heads, and it boomeranged. We won. He won't try anything like that again. Another one or two Amonas and he's finished." How to wage a winning popular struggle against the consolidation plan is the number one question facing the settler movement. A few leaders of the YESHA Council, the movement's dominant political arm, recently met with Yuval Porat, an in-demand political strategists and an informal adviser to the anti-disengagement campaign, to hear his ideas on how to fight Olmert. The advice he gave was sobering. "If the YESHA Council goes into the street now with a high-profile campaign of protests, it could result in speeding up the political process toward consolidation," says Porat, co-owner of Spin Communications, which handled the Pensioners Party phenomenally successful election campaign. As yet there is no urgency moving the plan forward, he notes, but if the settlers mount an attention-grabbing challenge to it, they could unite Kadima and Labor, which are now split over economic policy, against a common enemy. And if the protests turn violent, they could turn the media and public opinion against the settlers and in favor of the government. "Demonstrations are a very important part of a political struggle, but I don't think they will change the political situation that exists in Israel now," Porat maintains. This is not the time for settlers to fight, he suggests, but to think. "The main problem facing the right-wing opposition," he maintains, "is that it does not offer the public an alternative to the government. It has to develop an alternative leadership and alternative platform that the public can accept." Who should lead the settler movement is another matter of controversy in Judea and Samaria. Yet for all the grumbling and soul-searching going on, nobody in the YESHA Council is leaving and nobody is taking their place. This is a sign of the flatness of spirit in the movement - while the old way failed, no one has a new way in mind. It's become a clich that "the rabbis" have replaced the YESHA Council as the decision-makers in the settlers' struggle - that the young firebrands in the outposts and radical settlements around Nablus and Hebron won't listen anymore to "politicians" like Wallerstein and Benzi Lieberman who make deals with their old friends in government and the army, and instead will only listen to the spiritual leadership of insurgent rabbis like Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh, David Dudkevitch of Yitzhar, Zalman Melamed of Beit El and Avraham Shapira of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, the wellspring of the religious settler movement. For all this talk, though, the rabbis' stragegy, most notably their call on religious IDF soldiers to refuse orders to help evacuate settlements, failed miserably, too. A few dozen religious soldiers obeyed these rabbis, all the rest obeyed their army commanders. There is, however, a challenge to the YESHA Council's political leadership coming from at least one leader of the right-wing Knesset opposition - Benny Elon, head of National Union, resident of Beit El, promoter of a kind of "transfer lite" policy toward the Palestinians, and a scion of one of Israel's "aristocratic" national religious families. "The YESHA Council assumed a role it had no business assuming. It only hurt itself and the cause it was trying to serve," he says in his Knesset office. The council should stick to what it was appointed to do and what it does best, Elon says: Getting apolitical, nuts-and-bolts services for their constituents. When it comes to politics, he continues, the council has no mandate, is divided from within and under fire from without. "It will bring itself down this way," Elon warns. When I suggest that nobody ever complained about the YESHA Council's political legitmacy when it was winning, Elon demurs, saying he did. "I do not intend to allow the YESHA Council to continue in a role of political leadership," he asserts. "I represent the residents of Judea and Samaria more than do the YESHA Council." The legitimate political leadership rests with the heads of the three right-wing Knesset opposition parties, he says: "Bibi, Yvet and me," he says, referring to Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu's Avigdor "Yvet" Lieberman. "We will lead and the YESHA Council will have to know how to assist us," he says. "They get their power from us anyway. We give them their budgets." Wallerstein, the movement's "field general" for a generation, admits to having plenty of regrets, lots of second thoughts over disengagement. "A year-and-a-half before the expulsion, we tried to get National Union and the National Religious Party to quit the government; if we'd amassed a larger force, maybe it would have worked and Sharon wouldn't have had a coalition anymore," he suggests. The goal of the mass protest at Kfar Maimon, he continues, wasn't to break into Gush Katif, it was to break through the complacency of anti-disengagement Likud cabinet ministers who were afraid to lose their jobs. "Today it is clear to me," Wallerstein says, "that if we had started the protest at Kfar Maimon a week or 10 days earlier, not only Bibi but other ministers would have quit and Sharon wouldn't have had a government." But he reacts sarcastically to Elon's demand that the YESHA Council step aside in the fight against Olmert. "I think that by rights they should lead the struggle, but unfortunately they acted as lackeys of [Sharon's] coalition. I'll be happy if the Knesset members act like leaders this time around, but if they don't, we'll have to," he says. The fight will not be won in the streets; that was proven in Gush Katif and northern Samaria. It will not be won by violence, which only defamed the cause and made it easier to defeat. Extra-parliamentary protests can affect decisions of the country's elected leaders, but if they decide nevertheless to evacuate West Bank settlements, then those settlements will be evacuated. "Our public didn't understand this," says Elon. "If Olmert manages to get his plan approved by the Knesset, there will be nothing left for us to do." The movement isn't deluding itself about its strength in the Knesset. With Likud down from 40 to 12 seats, Porat notes, "The Right has a real problem - it has no large, widely popular party leading it." Furthermore, the opposition's nominal leader, Netanyahu, has a poor track record rallying opposition to settlement evacuation plans. "There's no doubt that Netanyahu [as finance minister] showed courage of conviction on the economic front, but on the national front he didn't," says Elon, noting that Netanyahu talked against Sharon's plan but voted for it, and only quit the cabinet when it was too late. "A lot of our people still don't forgive him," he said. Nevertheless, Elon is optimistic that consolidation will fail because whatever weaknesses the opposition has, the government's are worse, starting at the top. "If Sharon was prime minister today, even with the shaky coalition Olmert's got, we wouldn't have a chance. Sharon had extraordinary determination, he didn't care what anybody said, he charged ahead and people followed. Olmert doesn't have that," says Elon. Moreover, adds Porat, the consolidation plan itself isn't the neat, attractive little package that disengagement was. Sharon had the support of the US, Europe and moderate Arab states for his plan, Olmert has no foreign support for a partial pull-out from the West Bank. Unlike Sharon, Olmert would be handing over territory to a Palestinian Authority run by Hamas. His withdrawal schedule appears to clash with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's nuclear schedule. His patron, George Bush, is a virtual lame duck. Sharon didn't have any of those problems. And Sharon only had to uproot 9,000 settlers; Olmert has as many as 70,000 on his hands. "This is going to cost tens of billions or even hundreds of billions of shekels," Porat noted. Who has that kind of money to build houses for radical settlers? So the movement has several talking points for its campaign. But the question, say Elon and Porat, is whether the movement can mount such an effort, or is it too weak, divided, demoralized and adrift? "If they can't unite behind a leadership and platform, it's going to be very hard to stop the government," says Porat. "There's no denying we're worried," says Elon. At a recent Saturday night meeting in Ofra, some 75 residents showed up at a local auditorium to discuss those worries. "Some people talked about the need to fight for their homes, others talked about the need to prepare for the possibility that we might have to move," says Shai Ben Yosef, who organized the gathering. "Today it's clear to everyone that there is a real possibility that what happened in Gush Katif can happen here. Most people agree that we have to at least put up a fight, that we can't go as quietly as they did in Gush Katif, but nobody has come up with a clear, practical idea of how to cope with this situation." Sitting in his caravan in Amona while his wife prepared for Shabbat, Yehuda Baruchi, 32, a religious school teacher whose family was the first to settle in this outpost nine years ago, says he still believes that "the State of Israel will become the Kingdom of Israel," that even if consolidation goes through and scores of Jewish settlements are torn down, it will only be a stage, that God's plan will ultimately be realized and "redemption" will come. But while he hasn't lost faith in God, Baruchi has completely lost faith in any earthly power to stop the Israeli government. "The public doesn't care what happens," he says bleakly. "Today it would be possible to evacuate Jerusalem." In his guard booth, Azriel Simhoni recalls what he found when he first moved to Ofra on February 19, 1976. "There was nothing here, not even a tree," he says. "It was absolutely quiet, like a cemetery." If Olmert has his way, Ofra will be quiet like that again, only instead of being empty it will be a vast expanse of rubble, like Neveh Dekalim, Ganei Tal, Kadim and the 22 other settlements bulldozed last August. "I pray that he'll fail," Simhoni says. Asked if anything, besides praying, can be done to stop Olmert from finishing what Sharon started, the gatekeeper replies, "I don't know," his voice no louder than a whisper.