The precedent of hill 26

The declarations by the left wing organizations were threatening. “If Israel exploits the war in Iraq to carry out a transfer of Arabs,” one of them stated, “this will be a war crime.” Israel Defense Forces soldiers were warned “not to take part in war crimes lest they be placed on trial by the International Court.” Additional manifestos warned that the new government would exploit the fog of battle to establish new settlements–also defined as illegal acts that it would be a crime to abet.

In reality, all the shooting was into the air. Israel, which in any event had no intention of expelling Arabs, in effect even ceased carrying out targeted assassinations. During the two weeks since the war in Iraq began, and despite pinpoint terrorism warnings from the police and the Shabak (General Security Service), the Palestinians’ casualties were the lowest since their brutal terror war began. Even the bombing in Netanya on March 30, the twelfth there in two and half years, seems not to have altered this Israeli policy approach.

Paradoxically, the only “mini-transfer” carried out during the war has been against Jews. On March 25, late at night, soldiers and police broke into the home of the Ozeri family on a hill, known as hill 26, in Kiryat Arba, and terrified the widow and children of the late Yoni Ozeri, who was murdered around two months ago by Arab terrorists. They scattered everything in the house, as if they had burst into the home of terrorists, and dragged the mother and her children–who had still not recovered from the earlier terrorist trauma–out of the house. Friends of the dead husband who were sleeping in the house to protect the woman and her children were also removed by force and beaten by the troops.

Hill 26 is one of the so-called “illegal outposts.” Some observers estimate that in the course of the past two and a half years since the conflict began, more than 100 such outposts have been established. One of them, the Gilead Ranch in Samaria, was the scene some four months ago of one of the worst events of recent years: soldiers and police who had been dispatched to evacuate the ranch on the orders of Labor Party Minister of Defense Binyamin Ben Eliezer, encountered strong resistance. The violent confrontation between the security forces and the young settlers, frequently called “hill youth,” shocked the country.

Ben Eliezer, who was already planning the withdrawal of his party, Labor, from the national unity government headed by Ariel Sharon, thought he could reap political dividends from this act. But the forced evacuation, which initially appeared to help him politically, actually turned into the first act not only in his political decline–he was removed from the party leadership post–but in that of his party as well, which had ruled the country for so long: we recall that it suffered a painful defeat in the recent elections.

Many have asked themselves how a brutal evacuation like that of hill 26 could be carried out when the government is headed by Ariel Sharon and the Ministry of Defense by Shaul Mofaz. The mystery grows when we consider that the governing coalition includes National Religious Party ministers like Efi Eitam, who is described as an extreme rightist (the NRP received about one fourth of the settler vote in the last elections), as well as the National Union Party, which has adopted transfer as one of its slogans.

The answer to this question, as understood by the settler leadership, is in three parts:

1. Prime Minister Sharon wants to signal the United States president, who is under pressure concerning the roadmap from Arab states and from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that he was sincere when he promised, at their last meeting in Washington, that there would be no new settlements. He picked the weakest link among the settlers: followers of Rabbi Kahane, one of whom was the late Ozeri, who enjoy minimal support among the settlers at large and are generally opposed by the traditional leadership of the Yesha Council (Council of the Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza).

2. This is also a broad hint to the settler activists: they will not be allowed to establish any more unauthorized outposts. If they do so, they will be treated like the residents of hill 26.

3. “Only a right wing government can deliver,” i.e., the Gilead Ranch was the scene of a pitched battle because a minister of defense from the Labor Party, enemy of the settlements, gave the evacuation order. Faced with a similar directive from a right wing government that comprises the NRP and the National Union, the settlers would not dare indulge in violent opposition. Witness hill 26.

In private conversations, the heads of the NRP and the National Union state that they did not join the government to establish additional settlements. They understand that international circumstances prohibit such an option. We’ll suffice, we hear them say, with preventing removal of the outposts, and certainly of veteran settlements. But they are not particularly hopeful at a time when the roadmap is evolving, with Sharon’s concurrence and Likud backing, into the next peace process–what they call “the Likud’s Oslo.”

And the corollary, they predict, will be another bloody war.

Yisrael Harel is former Chairman of the Council of Settlers of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

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