Counterpoint: Israel's fifth column

A democracy cannot be held hostage by a band of gun-toting hooligans

It was one of David Ben-Gurion's most difficult decisions. After the establishment of the state, the provisional government resolved to unite all pre-state military factions into the newly formed Israel Defense Forces. On June 1, an agreement was signed whereby Menachem Begin's Irgun would be absorbed into the IDF and, as a result, would cease all independent arms acquisitions. However, prior to acceptance of this agreement, the Altalena, a ship carrying arms and fighters for the Irgun, was scheduled to land at the Tel Aviv port on May 15, 1948. For fear of it being sabotaged en route, no cables were sent to the Irgun headquarters in Paris, which would have included information of the agreement. After a delay in the scheduled departure, Begin informed Ben-Gurion that the ship had set sail on June 11 without his knowledge and was scheduled to dock on June 20. Ben-Gurion gave his consent to allow 20 percent of the arms to be transferred to the Irgun's Jerusalem Brigade, which was still engaged in combat. However, this decision was conditioned on Begin's commitment to first turn over all arms aboard the vessel to the IDF for distribution. When the ship anchored off the coast of Kfar Vitkin, Brigade Commander Dan Even ordered Begin to surrender the ship's cargo. In the meantime, Ben-Gurion commanded acting chief of General Staff Yigael Yadin to mass troops and heavy armor off the Mediterranean shore to force Begin's hand. Begin refused to respond to the ultimatum, making a clash inevitable; whereupon Ben-Gurion issued the order to open fire on the Altalena. While there is much debate as to whether the confrontation could have been avoided, Ben-Gurion's decision not to tolerate a militia operating independently of a unified army was courageous. He understood that a paramilitary group acting on its own would have a devastatingly destabilizing effect on the new nation and its future as a democracy. This historical backdrop has served Israel's public relations campaign well when it singles out the inability of the Palestinian Authority to disarm its paramilitary forces - Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, Tanzim, Izadin al-Kassam Brigade, Islamic Jihad and a host of other private armies. BECAUSE OF Mahmoud Abbas' inability to assert his authority over the myriad of Palestinian militias in the territories, Israel is justifiably skeptical that any agreement of worth could be reached with the Palestinians. But, if the Altalena incident has served us well in exposing the weaknesses and violence of the PA, it has not served us well regarding our own paramilitary organizations. I am referring to the settler movement in the territories. Many settlers maintain their own mini-army. They are well organized, with an elaborate communications system and ample weapons and ammunition, as shown on Channel 10 when two new settlements were established in protest against US President George W. Bush's visit. While such an extensive operation may be deemed necessary for defense of their settlements, often these settlers initiate offensive actions. They roam the countryside as if it were the Wild West, intimidating Palestinians, preventing them from tilling their soil, often driving them off at gunpoint. We hear reports of some settlers terrorizing Palestinian villages, driving through streets and alleyways in the middle of the night, firing their rifles in the air, shooting water tanks on the roofs of homes and sometimes firing into houses. With armed guards from their ranks protecting them, they feel free to confiscate Palestinian lands, knowing that the army, in continual violation of High Court rulings to protect Palestinians who are cultivating their fields, will not confront them for fear of a violent conflagration. Successive governments have allowed the settlers to lead them by the proverbial nose. They are handled with kid gloves, rarely prosecuted for these actions. After Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs, the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had public support to evacuate the small fanatic Jewish community in Hebron. Fearful of settler retaliation, he opted not to. The disengagement from Gaza did not erupt into open warfare because most of the settlers were not extreme religious ideologues. It would be a totally different scenario should Israel dismantle hard-core settlements in the West Bank. The evacuation of settlers in the territories would make the Gaza disengagement look like child's play. It is this continuous fear of armed resistance that keeps so many illegal settlements standing. For certain, the settlers have the right to self-defense. In light of too many hostile acts by Palestinians that have resulted in the loss of life, it is both understandable and justifiable that settlers should bear arms. But there is a difference between the right to self-defense and marshalling that right into a paramilitary presence that roams freely and recklessly throughout the territories, taking the law into its own hands. Israel cannot abide a situation in which a fifth column of vigilantes defines the law in the territories. A democracy cannot survive when the enforcement of judicial rulings and governmental decisions are held hostage by a band of gun-toting hooligans. No one would suggest that Ben-Gurion's directive to attack the Altalena serve as a paradigm to put an end to settler thuggery. But, if Israel chooses not to disarm the settlers because the army cannot defend the settlements, it should at the least remove the settlers and dismantle the settlements.