The real loser at Hebron

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Unfortunately, the forced evacuation of a few hundred anarchic settler youth from a disputed building in Hebron ten days ago was not a turning point in the Israeli establishment’s tolerance of the settler project in the West Bank. The circumstances were too unique. Nor is there an Israeli leader on the scene who is courageous enough to turn his or her fear of the settlers and recognition of the damage they are doing into a resolute campaign to stop them from eroding away at Israel’s status as both a democratic and a Jewish state. The settlers seemingly remain hell bent on course toward scuttling any chance of a two-state solution.

True, the police, border police and IDF displayed an improved capacity in Hebron to take over a disputed building and remove its violent, messianic and anarchistic young squatters, most of them undisciplined "hilltop youth", with minimum damage and minimal casualties. This was the first such action since the fiasco of destroying seven "illegal" buildings in the illegal outpost of Amona more than two years ago. That operation produced heavy casualties, generated a violent settler reaction and deterred the Olmert government from attempting further evacuations of outposts. The Hebron operation restores faith in the capacity of the security community to remove settlers.

Yet it seems pathetic to be praising the security forces for such a simple operation.

Nor should we exaggerate in praising the political establishment for undertaking the forced evacuation. After all, the current election campaign made life easier for Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, who contrived to launch the Hebron operation as a successful surprise both politically and operationally. Israel has a transition government that cannot, constitutionally, be toppled over this or any other act. Had Barak ordered the evacuation during ordinary times, Shas would probably have brought down the government. So his show of determination against a fringe of the population not likely to vote for him anyway has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Worse, where was the heavy Israeli security contingent in Hebron when the extremist settlers responded to the evacuation by marauding through Arab Hebron (by far the larger part of the city), torching houses and cars, shooting and stoning? It was well known that the extremist settlers had put a "price tag" on every act by the state against them. Yet the violence and the defacing of mosques and Muslim cemeteries began before the evacuation and were allowed to continue for a day or two afterward, not only in Hebron but elsewhere in the West Bank as well.

Thus both the extremist settlers and the security community could be said to have "scored points" in Hebron. On the other hand the settler mainstream–those tens of thousands who tut-tut about the rampaging hilltop youth and their few thousand active settler allies but have never lifted a finger against them, and whose messianic ideology inevitably produced them–lost points, as more and more Israelis became disgusted with the entire settler enterprise.

But there was only one net loser at Hebron: the moderate Palestinian Authority government and the security forces that it has, with American, European and Jordanian assistance, trained and deployed throughout the West Bank. The Hebron battalion of those forces was obliged to stand aside while Jews rampaged the streets they normally patrol, lest they violate their mandate by confronting Israeli citizens.

The performance of those forces in Jenin, Nablus and Hebron had thus far won the universal praise of Arabs, Israelis and third parties who see their deployment as a major confidence-building measure and building block for eventual political agreements. After the events in Hebron, their success has become more difficult to sustain. Hamas was obviously aware of this when it renewed Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel. It could at one and the same time show solidarity with Arab Hebronites and embarrass the PA’s security forces.

Until now it was understood (e.g., in phase I of the roadmap) that Palestinian security-building and Israeli dismantling of settlements and outposts should take place more or less simultaneously. Lately this has not been the case: while Palestinian security forces are not tackling terrorism, they have at least restored law and order to West Bank cities; Israel, on the other hand, has not dismantled any outpost of significance.

Now we may have to conclude that the Palestinian security forces cannot be expected to generate genuine security, in the sense even of protecting Palestinian civilians, as long as settlers are around. That possibility presupposes a very different order of separating Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank as a significant step toward a two-state solution, with removal of settlers coming first. Otherwise, the entire Palestinian security-rebuilding enterprise could lose a serious measure of credibility in the eyes of the Palestinian people.

Yet for settlers to be removed first, or for that matter even last, one of two things must happen. Either an Israeli leader will emerge with sufficient courage and political backing not to fear a new "Altalena"–another life or death conflict with extremist Jews that risks drawing Jewish blood, as David Ben Gurion did in sinking an Irgun arms ship off the Tel Aviv coast in 1948. Or the proponents of an international force as an instrument of implementing a two-state solution will have to redefine that force’s objectives to include the forcible removal of settlers whom the state of Israel put in place . . . but is incapable of removing.

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