Outpost strife shakes Israel


West Bank: Settlers and their supporters say a politician's ambition is to blame for their removal.

October 24, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVAT GILAD, West Bank - The showdown over this desolate, sand-swept hilltop began over the weekend when Israeli soldiers and police fought for two days with Jewish settlers who refused orders to abandon the illegal settlement.

Tuesday, the settlers returned, pounded tent stakes into the soft ground and began to rebuild tin shacks that had been flattened by the army. They vowed to return again and again, no matter how many times they are evicted.

The stand by this band of devout settlers in the far reaches of the northern West Bank has erupted into a bruising political battle in Israel that threatens to topple the coalition government and has stirred a vitriolic debate bordering on the profane.

Threats have been made against Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who ordered settlers to leave Havat Gilad and several other illegal outposts.

Supporters of the settlements are accusing Ben-Eliezer of ordering the evacuations to curry favor with the left for approaching elections and distance himself from the right, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an architect of settlement expansion.

The images of police and settlers fighting each other for hours at Havat Gilad blanketed television screens and newspapers as if a mini-civil war had broken out for this tiny piece of land. The coverage let up only when a suicide bombing killed 14 Israelis on Monday night.

The fight over the settlements pits Israeli against Israeli, soldier against citizen and religious idealism against patriotism. Some rabbis are urging soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle the outposts, and the army said Monday's bombing in Hadera might have been thwarted had soldiers assigned to guard against attacks not been distracted by the settlers.

`Threats to my life'

The revelation that soldiers had been mobilized to dismantle the settlement Saturday afternoon, before the end of the Jewish Sabbath, further heightened tensions. The religious right demanded that Ben-Eliezer be fired for desecrating the day of rest.

"Telephone threats to my life were placed to my home and office," Ben-Eliezer said at a meeting of Labor Party leaders, adding that such statements are similar to ones that created the hateful atmosphere preceding the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Battle lines are clearly drawn in a poster pasted to the side of a water tank in Havat Gilad, where settlers allowed a reporter to tour this week but declined any request to interview them. The message is directed squarely at soldiers:

"One must distinguish between good and evil, between one who loves and the enemy," the poster says. "The duty of the Israeli army is to expel the enemy and not expel the loving. Soldiers, policemen, don't play into the enemy's hands."

Ben-Eliezer began his campaign to remove 21 illegal West Bank settlements two weeks ago. Most consisted of uninhabited caravans and were taken down without a punch.

But the incident at Havat Gilad - Gilad Farm - was the first recent attempt to remove people. The settlement was founded in June last year in memory of Gilad Zar, who was killed by Palestinian gunmen while driving between the nearby established settlements of Kedumim and Yitzhar.

The hundreds of police who converged on Havat Gilad over the weekend first tried to coax the residents to leave. Moshe Zar, Gilad's father, urged calm and initially said he would leave.

A group dubbed the "Hill Youth" disagreed and pelted police and soldiers with bottles and rocks, and ripped uniforms and slashed their tires. Police and soldiers then forcibly removed the protesters, pulling them through windows and tossing them off the tops of metal containers.

By the end of the night, 43 police officers had been injured and 15 settlers arrested. By Sunday afternoon, army bulldozers had flattened the outpost.

Then the political problems began.

"The rampage at the outpost was the complete trampling of the rule of law," Ben-Eliezer told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "I am determined to dismantle to the end, and I don't want anybody preaching to me. ... Nothing will deter me."

Ben-Eliezer then threatened to lead the Labor Party out of the government, which could force elections unless Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud bloc, offered his full support. Labor leaders also want Sharon to fire Cabinet Minister Effi Eitam, the leader of the National Religious Party, who called Ben-Eliezer "a liar, a coward and a fool."

Plea to disobey

Rabbi Zalman Melamed, who lives in the Beit El settlement north of Jerusalem, added to the fray when he publicly urged Israeli reserve soldiers to refuse orders to dismantle any settlement outposts, saying the orders countermand Jewish law. That prompted a swift condemnation from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.

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