The New York Times runs a story today that spotlights first the apparent assassination attempt against Prof. Zeev Sternhell (a prominent Israeli academic and critic of the settlement movement), but then takes a more in-depth look at the messianic, violent, settler movement in the West Bank. (I've pasted the story below.) Although the Times as well as the Washington Post have published some informative (and occasionally incisive) pieces on this subject in recent years, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan have pushed stories about the situation in the Palestinian territories under the radar for most Americans. And that's a shame, because across the Middle East (and the larger Islamic world)), people have pointed to the US's acceptance of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank (which is now more than 40 years old) as one of the most blatant examples of how the US stands for prejudice and hypocrisy rather than for justice and fairness.
But, at this point, to expect Israel to dismantle its huge settlements in the West Bank is supremely unrealistic. And to expect any Israeli government to truly go after the settler movement in the West Bank - to dismantle the illegal settlements and "outposts" - is just as unrealistic.
Why? Remember that Kadima, the party that heads up the current governing coalition in Israel, cannot maintain its hold without the support (and Knesset votes) of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious party whose leader, the rabbi Ovadia Yosef, stands squarely behind the settlers. If she is to succeed to the prime ministership (now that the disgraced Ehud Olmert has resigned), new Kadima leader Tzipi Livni cannot risk alienating Shas.
Furthermore, any dismantling of the outposts will require the Israeli army's active participation. Once a bastion of the secularism that Israel's socialist-inclined founding fathers avowed, the IDF now includes a substantial cadre of religious officers and soldiers, many of whom would resist orders to tear down outposts and confront (perhaps violently) their occupants. (In fact, when they were required to do so at the West Bank outpost of Amona in 2005, many soldiers found themselves very "conflicted." That would only be worse by now.)
The religious settlers are both dug in and moving on to new "frontiers" in what they see as their "Promised Land." (And tens of thousands of American Christian fundamentalist evangelicals are cheering them on.) Put simply, any sustained move by the government against the religious settlers would threaten the unity and integrity of the Israeli army, and would quite possibly plunge Israel into a civil war.
A growing number of Palestinians recognize that the two-state solution is no longer workable. That leaves, of course, only a few alternatives:
1. A truly binational state, in which all citizens (Arabs and Jews) have equal political and social rights and standing. That, of course, is the most just and fair solution. It would also mark, for too many, the end of the Zionist "dream."
2. An even more apartheid state, with a fast-growing Palestinian population subsumed as an underclass under the domination of a Jewish minority.
3. The forced transfer of Palestinians out of the West Bank (and Gaza?). A significant number of Israelis (and, for that matter, American Christian evangelicals) have been calling for this for years.
How this situation resolves itself - and how that resolution spills over into Middle Eastern and global geopolitics - are going to have huge impact for decades to come.
Radical Settlers Take On Israel
YITZHAR, West Bank — A pipe bomb that exploded late on Wednesday night outside the Jerusalem home of Zeev Sternhell, a Hebrew University professor, left him lightly wounded and created only a minor stir in a nation that routinely experiences violence on a much larger scale.
But Mr. Sternhell was noted for his impassioned critiques of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, once suggesting that Palestinians “would be wise to concentrate their struggle against the settlements.” And the authorities found fliers near his home offering nearly $300,000 to anyone who kills a member of Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli advocacy group, leading them to suspect that militant Israeli settlers or their supporters were behind the attack.
If so, the bombing may be the latest sign that elements of Israel’s settler movement are resorting to extremist tactics to protect their homes in the occupied West Bank against not only Palestinians, but also Jews who some settlers argue are betraying them. Radical settlers say they are determined to show that their settlements and outposts cannot be dismantled, either by law or by force.
There have been bouts of settler violence for years, notably during the transfer of Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005. Now, though, the militants seem to have spawned a broader, more defined strategy of resistance designed to intimidate the state.
This aggressive doctrine, according to Akiva HaCohen, 24, who is considered to be one of its architects, calls on settlers and their supporters to respond “whenever, wherever and however” they wish to any attempt by the Israeli Army or the police to lay a finger on property in illegally built outposts scheduled by the government for removal. In settler circles the policy is called “price tag” or “mutual concern.”
Besides exacting a price for army and police actions, the policy also encourages settlers to avenge Palestinian acts of violence by taking the law into their own hands — an approach that has the potential to set the tinderbox of the West Bank ablaze.
Hard-core right-wing settlers have responded to limited army operations in recent weeks by blocking roads, rioting spontaneously, throwing stones at Palestinian vehicles and burning Palestinian orchards and fields all over the West Bank, a territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. They have also vandalized Israeli Army positions, equipment and cars.
In Jewish settlements like Yitzhar, an extremist bastion on the hilltops commanding the Palestinian city of Nablus in the northern West Bank, a local war is already being waged. One Saturday in mid-September a Palestinian from the neighboring village of Asira al Qibliya climbed the hill to Shalhevet, a neighborhood of Yitzhar, set fire to a house whose occupants were away for the weekend and stabbed a 9-year-old settler boy, the Israeli Army said.
Hours later, scores of men from Yitzhar rampaged through the Palestinian village, hurling rocks and firing guns, in what the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, described as a “pogrom.” Several Palestinians were hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
“The army was complaining that we were bothering them in their efforts to catch the terrorist,” said Ephraim Ben Shochat, 21, a resident of Shalhevet Ya, an illegal outpost consisting of three permanent houses and a trailer halfway down the slope between Yitzhar and Asira al Qibliya.
“To us, deterrence is more important than catching the specific terrorist. We’re fighting against a nation,” Mr. Ben Shochat said.
As he spoke, soldiers were in the process of reinforcing a small army post at the end of the path with concrete slabs. “We would rather fight and kill the enemy,” Mr. Ben Shochat said, adding scornfully that the army, which guards Yitzhar and its satellites from the lookout post, “would rather hide.”
Ten months ago in Annapolis, Md., Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to make every effort to reach a historic agreement for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by the end of this year. The Palestinians further promised to dismantle all terrorist networks, and the Israelis agreed to freeze all settlement activity and immediately remove settlement outposts erected since March 2001.
In practice, only a handful of the 100 or so outposts, at least half of which were erected since 2001, have been removed, and construction in the official West Bank settlements goes on.
At the same time, the religious, ideological wing of the settlement movement has grown more radical. Those on the extremist fringe — like Mr. Ben Shochat, who belong to the so-called hilltop youth — are increasingly rejecting any allegiance to the state, backed up by an older generation of rabbis and early settler pioneers.
In Samaria, the biblical name for the northern West Bank, and in Binyamin, the central district around the Palestinian city of Ramallah, settlers recently ousted their more mainstream representatives in local council elections, voting in what they called “activist” mayors instead.
These new mayors, like the Samaria council’s Gershon Mesika, reject what they see as the more compromising policies of the Yesha council, the settler movement’s longstanding umbrella group. They are particularly incensed by the Yesha council’s willingness to negotiate with the government over the removal or relocation of some West Bank outposts in exchange for official authorization of others.
“We are taking our fate into our own hands,” Mr. Mesika said of the price tag doctrine. “We won’t go like sheep to the slaughter.” He added that the recent settler violence was something he understood, though did not support.
For many in the religious, ideological settler camp the rude awakening came with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005. Then, under the premiership of Ariel Sharon, a driving force of the settlement-building enterprise who turned more pragmatic, Israel evacuated all 21 Jewish settlements there, and razed four official settlements in the northern West Bank. Another watershed came in early 2006 when thousands of settlers clashed with Israeli police officers who had come to destroy nine houses built without government permission in Amona. Traumatized by the resistance, the government put plans for further evacuations on hold.
“Amona pretty much divided this public into two parts, the more militant activist part and the more passive part,” said Mr. HaCohen, an Orthodox hilltop youth pioneer and a founder of Shalhevet Ya. The people, he said, “have to decide whether they are on the side of the Torah or the state.”
Mr. HaCohen was speaking from a cousin’s house in Jerusalem. Identified by the Israeli security services as one of the authors of the price-tag doctrine, he has been banned by the army from entering the West Bank for four months.
Born in Monsey, N.Y., Mr. HaCohen came to Israel with his parents as a child. He dropped out of yeshiva, or religious seminary, at 16 and went to settle the hilltops, he said. He got married at 18 and has since been living in and around Yitzhar.
Representing the messianic, almost apocalyptic wing of the settler movement, Mr. HaCohen peppers his speech with talk of redemption and makes it clear that in his land of Israel, there is no place for Arabs.
Like Mr. Ben Shochat, Mr. HaCohen, who is disarmingly soft-spoken, said he was not drafted into the army because of his religious beliefs. As a member of Yitzhar’s first response security team, though, he receives regular combat training and has a personal weapon.
More than 250,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank among roughly 2.4 million Palestinians, not including East Jerusalem. The Samaria council represents 30 official settlements and 12 unauthorized outposts that it says were all founded before 2001; others, like Shalhevet Ya, have sprung up since then, at least partially on private Palestinian lands.
Local settler leaders argue that the only difference between an authorized settlement and an illegal outpost is the lack of the defense minister’s final signature on the planning papers, and that in any case, full authorization did not help the settlements razed in 2005.
They complain of government hypocrisy. Rahelim, a Samarian community of 45 families founded in 1991, has been labeled an illegal outpost even though the state Housing Ministry built 14 permanent homes here in 1998.
Avri Ran, a charismatic guru of the hilltop youth, formulated the concept of the outposts around the time that Israel started negotiating with the Palestinian leadership in the early 1990s. The idea was to populate empty spaces of the West Bank with Jews to preclude their being handed over to the Palestinians.
Mr. Ran and his wife, Sharona, started out in Itamar, a settlement just south of Nablus, and moved from hilltop to hilltop, finally establishing a private ranch more than a mile east of the mother settlement majestically named Givaot Olam, or hills of the universe.
Like many of the settlers in this area who see themselves as guardians of Joseph’s Tomb, a site sacred to Jews that lies in the heart of Nablus, the Ran family exudes a deeply religious, almost mystical attachment to the land.
The farm is said to be the largest Israeli producer of organic eggs. Mr. Ran’s son-in-law, Assaf Kidron, an artist who works in stone, says the inclement winds that used to whip around the mountain have dropped significantly since Jews came to live here, proof of a divine hand.
Outside the settlement of Har Bracha on Mount Grizim, settlers have taken over a former army lookout post on the ridge overlooking Nablus and Joseph’s Tomb, and just started operating a yeshiva to ensure a permanent presence there. Nobody has tried to remove the settlers, although there is an army position a short distance along the ridge.
In general, the relationship between the religious settlers of the area and the army is an ambiguous, if symbiotic one. Most young ideological settlers serve in the army and now make up an increasing portion of the elite combat units and the officers corps.
At the same time, two soldiers have been lightly wounded in recent settler riots.
“To go out and assault soldiers is wrong,” said David Ha’ivri, who handles foreign relations for the Samaria council. But, he said, “It is to be expected that when force is used, there will be counterforce.”
The army is appreciated when it sticks to providing security, Mr. Ha’ivri added, but, “We don’t respect them in the role of enforcing building codes.”
The army refused to comment on the effects of the price-tag doctrine, saying it was too sensitive.
A spokesman for the Israeli police, the party responsible for law enforcement among the settlers, said that in the last two months, at least half a dozen arrests had been made.