Disengagement’s Foreplay

Historic days in Israel: a showdown between the government and the settlers. Though the sides do negotiate behind the scenes, this time it does not look like the cat-and-mouse games for the media a few years ago, Prime Minister Barak’s favorite dissimulation, when a few settlers were filmed dragged from some unmanned West Bank outpost after signing a confidential agreement with the government assuring their return once the cameras were gone. This time it’s serious.

One can understand why so many soldiers disobey orders in the evacuation’s foreplay – apparently more than soldiers refusing to partake in the atrocities of occupation. Whereas the latter refused to fight what had always been defined as the enemy, the former simply fail to adapt to the sudden change-of-heart that turned the settlers from allies to opponents. After all, only total outsiders (or paid and unpaid Israeli propaganda agents) can believe that the Israeli army is a neutral organ that impartially enforces law and order on everyone in the occupied territories. As every soldier, settler, and Palestinian knows, the Israeli army is there for the settlers (and vice versa). For decades, soldiers have been trained not only to protect the settlers from the Palestinians (and not vice versa) and to back (or at least turn a blind eye at) every settlers’ transgression; Israeli soldiers also serve as bodyguards, drivers, and even nannies for individual settlers and their families. The mental shift that turns allies into opponents is not an easy one to stomach.

Spoiled Thugs

This mental and practical shift has strange repercussions. The settlers are perhaps the most ludicrous example. Their slogan, coined specially for the expected eviction, is “a Jew doesn’t deport a Jew." Note on one hand the honest, blatant racism of the slogan – a Jew may well deport non-Jews, say Arabs, as Israel has been doing again and again, with settlers’ help; but deporting Jews – oh no, that’s un-Jewish. On the other hand, note the demagoguery in using the term “deportation," even more apparent in their slogan “No to Transfer”: Israeli citizens, who moved to a land knowing it was under occupation – actually, they moved there precisely because of its controversial status – are now moved back to their own country by their democratically elected government, which also compensates them generously. These people now hypocritically compare themselves to Palestinians deported in war, by their enemy, to foreign countries, losing not only their entire possessions without any compensation, but usually also their political and civil rights.

Utterly embarrassing is the fact that while chanting their racist slogans, the settlers suddenly discovered “Democracy." Settlers’ leader and columnist Israel Harel (Ha’aretz, Jul 14, 2005) describes the decision to evict settlements (endorsed once again by a Knesset majority last week) as “a rape of the democracy," as if religious settlers like himself ever truly acknowledged the right of a democratic majority to withdraw from what they consider the holy land that belongs to the Jewish people of all past and future generations. Settlers also complain about “undemocratic” measures aimed at foiling their intention to infiltrate the Gaza settlements in order to resist their eviction. It’s strange indeed to hear the settlers – who always complain that the army is too soft on the Palestinians, who consistently identify the discourse of human rights, proportionality, rule of law, etc., with unpatriotic left-wing defeatism, who have been raping democracy for decades in order to advance their illegal project (all Israeli governments were willingly raped, to be sure) – resorting to the very discourse they always defamed. Some of them even warn that the measures taken against them might be used against other sectors in future – a ridiculous attempt to gain sympathy, which only proves how detached the settlers are from the violent Israeli reality, in which so many demonstrations are dispersed by excessive police violence. The shift from a state-sponsored thug to an ordinary criminal is not easy to stomach either.

Pervasive Colonialism

But why complain about the settlers? Last week, having closed the Gaza settlements for noninhabitants, General Gershon Hacohen, the highest military commander of the eviction operation, said that stopping people at checkpoints on their way home was “humiliating and breached their democratic liberties and human rights” – an interesting announcement coming from within an army running hundreds of checkpoints against Palestinian movement in the occupied territory for years.

The odd constellation makes even Israel’s respectable liberal judges utter unforgettable slips of tongue: the celebrated president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, ruling in the case of a settlers’ group charged with blocking roads all over the country, wrote last week that “no moral argument could justify stopping a woman in labor on her way to hospital." A great insight indeed, but a strikingly sudden one: Where was Justice Barak when so many Palestinian women have been forced to give birth in open field, unable to cross an Israeli checkpoint? Hasn’t he watched even the recent television series by mainstream Israeli journalist Hayim Yavin, who documented such a forced “natural” birth? Didn’t he notice how ridiculous his words sounded? Couldn’t he phrase it differently, just to save his face from the inevitable scorn? Apparently, this wider context didn’t even occur to the judge. The blindness-struck formulation of the Supreme Court shows that the dehumanization of Israel’s subaltern subjects is deeply anchored even in what many consider the purest incarnation of the State’s democracy.

Consensus Behind Dispute

The clashes between army and settlers should not mislead us. Just like the competition between too ice-cream producers conceals their common interest – getting people to buy more ice-cream – one should remember that the tactical differences between the Sharon government and the settlers conceal a common vision: that of entrenching the occupation of the West Bank. The withdrawal from Gaza – Sharon never made a secret of it – is to be generously compensated by de facto annexation of some 40-60 percent of the West Bank – the so-called settlements blocks, plus the Wall, plus the areas between the Green Line and the Wall, plus so-called strategically important areas, plus Greater Jerusalem – all according to maps prepared by Sharon in the 1970s.

The planned eviction should serve this cause. The more difficult it looks, the more useful it would be for rejecting pressures for future withdrawals. As the “moderate settler” Yoel Bin-Nun explained last week, the settlers know very well that their battle for Gaza was lost; by maintaining the struggle, he said, they want to save the other settlements. Sharon shares the same strategy and vision; the very generous economic compensations offered to the evicted settlers also have the same objective: to make any future withdrawal politically and economically impossible.

For the same reason, history is now rewritten: the expected withdrawal is portrayed as an apocalyptic, unprecedented event. Never before has “a Jew deported a Jew," never before had the State of Israel withdrawn from the Land of Israel. Rabbis are consulted as if a new Halakhic situation suddenly emerged. Nonsense, of course: Israel occupied Sinai and the Gaza Strip in 1956 and withdrew shortly after. Israel re-occupied Sinai in 1967 and withdrew in the early 1980s, evacuating thousands of settlers. But both Sharon and the settlers can gain little by portraying the eviction as one more phase in the fluctuating border history of Israel, as just another compromise between expansionist desires and political, military, and economic realities.

Accordingly, and just like in the worst days of previous Likud governments, when every American envoy was welcomed by establishing yet another illegal settlement in the occupied territories, Sharon welcomed Condoleezza Rice on her urgent visit to Israel last week by announcing, just a few hours before her landing, Israel’s intention not only to keep the illegal settlement of Ariel “for ever," but also to expand it and connect it to Israel proper: a slap in the face of President Bush and his roadmap.

Portraying the withdrawal as a big bang thus serves both Sharon’s image as “man of peace” – the Israeli de Gaulle who withdraws from the colonies – and his colonialist project, which he hasn’t given up for a single moment, except for realizing that one may have to give up a hill in order to keep the mountain.

Read more by Ran HaCohen

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.