Israeli leaders tell their Palestinian counterparts they must enforce law and order. They state that this is a pre-condition not only for peace but for maintaining a viable Palestinian entity. The Israelis stress the particular importance of enforcing the law upon militant armed extremists who do not accept the authority of the duly-elected government. They call upon the Palestinians to draw a lesson from the "Altalena" crisis.
In June 1948, in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence, a militant Jewish group smuggled to the shores of Israel a ship named Altalena, loaded with weapons and ammunition as well as Holocaust survivors from Europe. When the Jewish militants refused to surrender the arms to the Israeli army, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave orders to attack them, and the army fired upon the ship until it exploded. This determination to quell rebellion and enforce absolute obedience saved the infant Israeli democracy. "You must now demonstrate the same determination and not be afraid to have your own Altalena," the Israelis preach to the Palestinian leadership.
But the sad truth is that the lesson of Altalena has been long forgotten by the Israeli leaders themselves. Ben-Gurion’s successors have lacked his determination and are very reluctant to confront extremist right-wing zealots when they break the law. This failure to enforce law and order actually explains how the illegal phenomenon of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories came to be. The Israeli authorities knew very well that international law prohibits such settlements. At the beginning of the occupation Israeli law had prohibited them as well. However, Jewish extremists blatantly broke the law and the authorities, instead of evicting and punishing the illegal settlers, embraced them and gave them assistance and legitimacy.
The dismal failure to impose law and order persisted when Jewish settlers in the territories became violent and began harassing their Palestinian neighbors. In 1982, an official report by Deputy Attorney General Yehudit Karp confirmed allegations that settlers who assaulted Palestinians were generally neither arrested nor prosecuted. Twelve years later, following the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers by a Jewish extremist at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the commission of inquiry headed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar devoted an entire chapter in its report to the failure of law enforcement and noted that this failure encouraged the law-breakers and escalated settler violence.
This unchecked and unpunished violence bred terrible counter violence. Indeed, 40 days after the massacre of the Palestinian worshippers in Hebron, at the end of the traditional Muslim period of mourning, Palestinian zealots initiated their horrifying, inhuman series of suicide bombings against Israelis. Thus was created a vicious circle that engulfed the Oslo Accords in rivers of blood.
But the malignant effect of the lack of law enforcement has kept on spreading. Violent settlers in the territories, encouraged by the impotence of the authorities and probably feeling they are above the law, have begun to assault not only Palestinians, but also the very soldiers sent to defend them. Recently a paratroop battalion commander was quoted as complaining that in the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, in the Nablus area, "there exists a gang of law-breakers; I do not fear entering a Palestinian village the way I fear entering Yitzhar." Again, the authorities have not only avoided punishing the "gang of law-breakers", but reprimanded the soldiers who were beaten by the settlers! When a company commander serving in Yitzhar complained in a newspaper interview that Jewish settlers threw stones at his soldiers, threatened them with guns, and cut off their water supply, the Israeli army reprimanded him for giving an unauthorized interview, and apologized to the settlers.
Similar but even more amazing is the complacent and lukewarm response of the authorities to dangerous incitement by prominent and influential rabbis who have repeatedly called upon their devout disciples, both soldiers and civilians, to disobey the law as well as military commands in order to prevent the prime minister from carrying out disengagement as approved by the Cabinet and the Knesset. Again, instead of prosecuting the inciters, army generals and Justice Ministry officials paid them complimentary visits, begging them in vain for moderation.
This is especially disturbing if one remembers that such rabbinical incitement against the democratically approved Oslo Accords led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The assassin himself, Yigal Amir, said in his interrogation on the night of the murder: "Without a religious ruling issued by some rabbis I know, I would have had difficulty in committing the murder." A mere ten years later, the painful lesson that incitement "in the name of God" can be lethal has seemingly been forgotten. The very rabbis who incited a decade ago against Rabin also went unpunished.
When our attorney-general is required to explain this tolerance for rabbinical incitement he likes to speak about the need to respect freedom of speech. This explanation demonstrates that he overlooks still another historic lesson: the fate of the Weimar Republic, which was established in Germany after World War I. In the 1960s the Israel Supreme Court cited this lesson when it ruled that a democracy has the right, indeed the duty, to defend itself against those who try to use speech not as a tool of persuasion but rather as a tool to paralyze, frustrate and eventually destroy the democratic process. The supreme court justices–some of whom were themselves educated in the Weimar Republic and were first-hand witnesses to its demise–emphasized that democracy in Germany died because it let its enemies use political rights, and specifically free speech, to discredit and undermine it. No democracy, they said, can afford to repeat this fatal mistake.
Thus three vital lessons–the lesson of Altalena, the lesson of the Rabin assassination, and the lesson of the Weimar Republic–are now totally ignored by the authorities charged with the responsibility to impose law and order on those who rebel against the democratic system. Israeli democracy, just like the Palestinian Authority, is left defenseless against the zealots who seek to destroy it from within.