Step back from the abyss

The empty buildings at Amona are no more, but the repercussions of this terrible incident remain.

amona 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
amona 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
The nine empty buildings at Amona are no more, and the "battle" over them is over, but the repercussions of this terrible incident are not. Calls are flying for a commission of inquiry. Much inquiry is indeed in order, and far beyond the formal, legalistic kind. President Moshe Katsav, condemning the use of violence by protesters against the security forces, has also questioned the decision by police to use horses and batons during the evacuation, measures that were not seen during the dismantling of Gush Katif.
National Union MK Effi Eitam, who was injured at Amona, is demanding an independent inquiry focused on police brutality, a call that will be emphasized at a rally organized by settler leaders in Jerusalem tonight. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, by contrast, said, "A red line was crossed at Amona by youths who were sent by their parents, rabbis and teachers. I give full support to the army and the police to continue enforcing the law." In this context, it is appropriate that the Justice Ministry has ordered its internal police investigations unit to review the behavior of the police with the possibility of initiating legal actions if warranted. A more fundamental issue, however, is what is happening to an important sector of our society, to what were called "religious Zionist" youth. Avraham Gisser, the rabbi of Ofra, the settlement closest to Amona, said sorrowfully in this newspaper on Friday, "The violence at Amona is living proof for many settlers that their feelings are justified. It is proof that the government, the army and the police are our enemies." A vicious circle is being created in which it is a "victory" for settler protesters to prove that the state is brutal. During last summer's disengagement, the government and the security forces were fully aware of this and were determined to use force as little and as sensitively as possible; that was not the case last week. And so a dire situation was created at Amona in which both sides braced themselves for violence: the protesting settlers to force the state to back down, and the government and security forces to demonstrate that they would not be deterred. Gisser implies that this is what happened: "Amona will go down in history as a symbol of the limits of the struggle for Greater Israel, beyond which is death and abyss," he said. But are these really the limits? At the heart of the matter is the transformation of some religious Zionist youth from uber-patriots, who even saw the state as embodying messianic processes in history, into anti-Zionists who view the state as the enemy of these same ideals. Israel cannot be sanguine about such extreme alienation of so important a part of the public. Since the Amona violence, settler leaders reportedly have been attempting to negotiate the peaceful dismantling of some other illegal outposts in exchange for the retroactive legalization of others. This sort of deal would seem to be a compromise with the rule of law, but is difficult to rule out in light of the long, if questionable, tradition of such legalizations in the past. An important addition to such an arrangement would be the adoption of the many recommendations in the Sasson report designed to plug the legal loopholes that have created our current bizarre reality of outposts that are "illegal" but have also obtained different stages of bureaucratic approval. The crucial first step to defuse the growing enmity between some settlers and the state is for both sides to be more open to compromise and to seek to avoid, rather than to invite, confrontation. Both for Israel's wider sake, and for the cause of its specific interests, the settler leadership should reevaluate what has become - in the wake of the failure to thwart last summer's disengagement by political means - a confrontation-based strategy. A consequence of Amona may be that future such dismantling of outposts will be more costly and difficult, but this is a Pyrrhic victory from the point of view of the settlement enterprise. In a democracy, the sympathy of the public is the greatest asset; sparking widespread emotions of enmity is a massive liability. In the specific case of Amona, even if the public believes that the police acted brutally, this will not engender support for those who drop concrete blocks. The government has a prime responsibility to minimize conflict in the implementation of legitimate policies. The settler leadership, both for the sake of its cause and to bring some of its own youthful extremists back from the brink, needs to rethink its relationship with the Jewish state, to reconsider the strategy it follows to oppose and change government policy. It is not too late to step back from the abyss.