A Tale of Two Militant Groups

Gideon Levy

Israel liberates itself from the yoke of its encumbering, mendacious myths too slowly and too late, after too much blood has been spilled.


4 June 2000

   How fitting that they're the ones who first thought of the comparison: In promoting the Getting Wiser 2000 campaign and bandying about the slogan "Brothers aren't to be abandoned," settler leaders are comparing themselves to South Lebanon Army (SLA) soldiers. "We are not the SLA," their protest banners proclaim. Their spokesman reiterates ad nauseam that the settlers aren't going to let themselves be abandoned the way the SLA soldiers were. Rife both with defects and incisive accuracy, this analogy between the settlers and mercenaries is enlightening.

From the very start, the settlers' mobilization for the SLA soldiers seemed a little suspicious. When MK Zvi Hendel (National Union-Yisrael Beitenu) proposed that SLA refugees be housed in the settlements, and when members of the Atniel Yeshiva read psalms for the soldiers, a question arose: Had apocalypse come now, with the world turned upside down? Jewish settlers standing up for Arab refugees? Displays of universal humanism at West Bank settlements? Were Beit El residents now champions of human rights?

Alas, soon enough it became apparent that the pro-SLA posturing was a new twist in the customary double-standard mode. Humanitarian sentiments that have in the past applied exclusively to Jews were directed this time toward Arabs - but only to "good Arabs," ones who putatively served Israel's interests.

The settlers' mobilization for the mercenaries had another dimension: solidarity with a group whose fate, they feared, foreshadows their own.

In this connection, the analogy is, in its way, apt: There is some resemblance between these two phenomena bred by the modern Zionist movement, the settlers and the SLA.

The settlers have no real cause for hysteria. They are not going to end their lives as indigent refugees quartered in makeshift facilities provided by the Association for the IDF Soldier.

Whereas the SLA mercenaries are Lebanese nationals who lack any political footing in Israel, the settlers, Israeli Jews who are held in esteem by many of their fellow Israelis, control a political lobby that is the second most powerful one in Israel, next to that of the ultra-Orthodox.

Israeli leftists can only dream of lobbying in government corridors with the power of the settlers. In numbers, the settlers represent just a little more than a tenth of the total Arab population in Israel - and yet they command a wholly disproportionate share of power.

Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir: All these prime ministers measured their steps carefully, wary of colliding with the settlers.

Though Peres and Rabin wanted to initiate an evacuation, Hebron settlers were not removed after the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein at the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Nor were enclaves at Nezirim in Gaza, or Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, dismantled after the Oslo process started, even though the government knew that the sites invite disaster.

The fact that no Israeli government has been able to ignore the settlers' threats counts as the settlers' major political achievement. They always have to be placated. They always have to be compensated.

Though it is true that the settlers increasingly find themselves isolated in Israeli society (settlers were virtually the sole participants in the large right-wing demonstration that took place three weeks ago), they continue to possess a disproportionate share of political clout.

Should the settlers' social isolation continue apace, their political power will weaken - and in this respect, the lonely fate and political impotence of the SLA soldiers, who were perceived as having no real connection to Israeli society, is instructive.

The settlers are fully aware of the dangers bred by alienation from Israeli society.

From the beginning, both the Jewish settlement movement and the SLA military enterprise were advertised as promoting national security interests.

In the Golan Heights and in Hebron, in the Sinai and in the security zone in Lebanon, the settlers and the SLA soldiers were both depicted by Israeli governments as brave stalwarts who risked their lives to protect the country's borders.

This portrayal, however, was unfounded. Fly-by-night heroes, they were dispatched to defend Israel until it became evident that their charm was false glitter. The SLA turned out to be a painful thorn in Israel's side, and Israel made haste to distance itself from the SLA's troops; the settlers are a yet more serious stumbling block, but they are inextricably connected to national-religious myths which no Israeli leadership has, to the present day, dared to challenge.

Another resemblance between the two groups became apparent while they were carrying out their ostensible missions.

Just as the South Lebanon Army imposed a regime of terror in South Lebanon, some of the settlers are trying to consolidate a comparable system on the West Bank. Lacking any significant built-in behavioral restraints, both groups quickly became drunk with power; within areas under their control, both have acted as though they are all-powerful local lords.

It's true that, unlike the situation that until recently held sway in South Lebanon, the settlers lack any prison in which they can torture inmates, nor can they curb the freedom of local residents in the absence of High Court writs or the monitoring of human rights groups.

Nonetheless, many settlers manage to hold Palestinian residents in check via the use of threats and violence.

Go ask the dozens of Palestinian farmers who are scared to death of entering their fields, worried about what their neighbors might do; go ask Hebron merchants, whose lives are made miserable by settlers.

The settlers have pummeled children cave dwellers south of Hebron; according to data from human rights group B'tselem, they have shot and killed more than 100 Palestinians. Many acts of violence perpetrated by settlers are perceived by local residents as worse than those that are done by soldiers.

These two tales, the settlers' and the SLA soldiers', are destined to end on the same note. Israel has proposed to SLA soldiers that they either remain in their homes and live under a new regime, or move and live within its borders.

This is what will be offered one day to the settlers - but a long road must be traversed before that day comes. Israel liberates itself from the yoke of its encumbering, mendacious myths too slowly and too late, after too much blood has been spilled.





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