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15/7/05

Orange Rampant Peretz Kidron

  

July 15, 2005

(Peretz Kidron is a Jerusalem-based columnist for Middle East International.)

Israel’s national colors are blue and white. In the summer of 2005, however, an Israeli driver adorning his vehicle with ribbons in those hues runs the risk of a broken antenna or a vandal’s scratches in the paint job. Conversely, the motorist would be far safer joining what appears to be the general trend by accepting the strips of bright orange proffered at every main intersection by eager youngsters in orange T-shirts. Indeed, so dominant is the orange that one may be forgiven for suspecting a mass takeover by Protestant militants from Ulster.

Of course, nothing of the kind could happen in this self-proclaimed Jewish state. Orange has been chosen as the campaign color of the opposition to the upcoming Israeli “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and the northern tip of the West Bank. The smattering of blue-and-white ribbons is the rather hesitant response from supporters of the planned pullout of settlers and soldiers, now scheduled to begin on August 17. The threat of having one’s vehicle defaced may be one reason why so few moderates dare to display their colors. (Another may be that the blue-and-white camp is largely drawn from the left-of-center and centrist circles that harbor a long-standing dislike for the instigator of the withdrawal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.)

By contrast with the halfheartedness of their opponents, the orange camp is bold and self-confident, with thousands of streamers on cars, backpacks and purses generating the impression that theirs is the dominant voice in the Israeli debate over disengagement. In fact, it isn’t. Recent opinion polls published in the Israeli press show that the Gaza withdrawal enjoys a clear two-to-one majority among the Israeli public. There is nothing new in this ratio, which has shown up consistently over recent years whenever the issue of full or partial withdrawal from the Occupied Territories comes up. A majority of Israelis are clearly weary of the occupation and everything it entails.

“GOD ON THEIR SIDE”

But while that majority is largely silent and passive, a clamorous and assertive minority refuses to consider the possibility of relinquishing Israel’s hold upon the entirety of the territories occupied in the course of the 1967 war. For some, this refusal stems from implacable hostility toward the Palestinians and a fundamental mistrust of their motives and long-term intentions. Convinced that the Palestinian leadership is intent on nothing less than “throwing the Jews into the sea,” these circles believe that any territorial concession can only fan Palestinian hopes of annihilating Israel, reflecting fears that stand in contrast with the undisputed fact that Israel has far and away the mightiest conventional forces in the region, not to mention a tacitly acknowledged arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons and the unqualified strategic backing of the United States. But a paranoia deeply ingrained over generations of discrimination and persecution pays little heed to verity.

Those opponents of withdrawal who cite security concerns may retain some tenuous contact with objective realities and political specifics (the dissolution of Israel was, after all, the professed objective of the PLO in its early years). But the hard core of the opposition draws its motivation from ethereal and metaphysical realms where rational discussion of pros and cons has no place. To those true believers for whom every inch of territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea constitutes the “Land of Divine Promise,” there is no room for reflection or consideration. There is only blind faith, to the degree that many of the settlers and their zealot allies are convinced, even in the eleventh hour of mid-July, that the withdrawal will be foiled by some unspecified twelfth-hour “miracle.”

“With God on their side,” underpinned with chapter and verse of Biblical quotes, the diehard opponents of the withdrawal display unqualified fervor in pursuit of their campaign. As an exercise in political determination, it is indeed impressive. Tens of thousands have taken part in a variegated assortment of protests, ranging from mass rallies and marches to a human chain that stretched hand in hand from the Gaza settlements all the way to the sanctified Western Wall in Jerusalem. As exemplified by the tireless squads of youngsters extending orange ribbons at intersections throughout the country, the campaigners can call up ample manpower for any task required. Likewise, their financial resources seem almost unlimited, drawn equally from the donations of wealthy patrons in Jewish communities worldwide and from government funds skillfully (and illegally) siphoned off from their earmarked development projects in West Bank settlements. On top of material plenty, the settler leaders and their allies command well-lubricated organizational structures that they wield with considerable imagination, resourcefulness and theatrical flair. Fueled by faith and commitment, the opposition has often seemed unstoppable.

“DIRECT ACTION”

In its earlier phases, the campaign relied mainly on persuasion to evoke public sympathy for the Gaza “pioneers” about to be “expelled from their homes.” So effective was this tactic that much of the middle of Israel’s political spectrum wavered in its support for the pullout. Elated settler leaders pointed to late June polls that showed the ratio of support to opposition narrowing to as close as eight to seven; it seemed that success lay within their grasp, and one more effort would tilt the scales in their favor.

But the increase in public backing had already gone to the heads of the more radical circles, who beginning on May 16 switched to “direct action,” threatening to bring the country to a standstill unless the disengagement plan was called off. In coordinated raids, well-drilled teams of youngsters blocked key highways at the height of rush hour. By the time sweating policemen managed to haul them away, traffic throughout the country was hopelessly snarled. The tactic was repeated to lesser effect on June 27, when convoys of orange-bedecked vehicles stopped in the middle of highway traffic. Meanwhile, smaller groups went further, launching nocturnal forays to padlock the gates of schools and pour glue into the locks of government offices. Police and domestic security agencies seemed powerless to halt the disruptions or lay their hands on ringleaders. Having given a foretaste of the havoc they were capable of wreaking, the anonymous organizers promised that these actions were merely a “general rehearsal” for the mayhem they would inflict should the authorities launch the relocation plan.

The resort to these intimidating tactics, directed at the public at large, was a grave blunder. Although the official leadership of the settlers hastened to dissociate itself from the anarchistic young militants, the damage was done. Tired drivers anxious to get home after a hard day’s work showed little patience for the engineered traffic jams, and the backlash was swift. When telecasts showed footage of youthful ruffians making determined efforts to lynch a helpless young Palestinian in Gaza on June 29, and then clashing with police and soldiers, public tolerance ran out. Within days, support for the settlers had dwindled to a bare 30 percent, while a clear majority again expressed approval of the pullout. Notwithstanding the promises of anti-disengagement organizers, there was no sea of orange in the stands at the seventeenth Maccabiah Games, popularly known in Israel as the “Jewish Olympics.”

DUPLICITY

One would imagine that a government embarked upon a costly and controversial enterprise would be delighted and reassured that solid public support seems secure. In fact, that may not be entirely true. There are clear indications that Sharon’s resolute pursuit of the Gaza withdrawal carries undertones of ambiguity, and that the frenzied opposition he is encountering is not entirely unwelcome.

This note of duplicity has nothing to do with the small faction of ministers from Sharon’s own Likud Party — headed by Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu — who miss no opportunity to register their reservations over the entire project, or the party’s parliamentary faction, a third of whose members are in open revolt against the disengagement plan. In an effort to secure his position as heir apparent to the Likud leadership, Netanyahu is steering a prudent line, stopping just short of open defiance of Sharon while keeping his lines of communication with the party’s hardliners. Sharon has contrived to weather the storm, treating both the settler protesters and his rebellious party colleagues with unconcealed disdain. “I am telling you, the [withdrawal] will be carried out even if every single road is blocked, even if the entire country is shut down for two weeks,” he said in June. “It won’t change a thing.”

But even as Sharon rides roughshod over the objections of his own followers (clearly recorded in May 2004 when a referendum of party members returned a majority against the pullout) it seems evident that, in pulling troops and settlers out of Gaza and the northern West Back, the prime minister is not embarking upon a first step toward ending the occupation or implementing the US-sponsored “road map to peace.” In the early stages of the controversy, Sharon’s close confidant, Dov Weisglass, was imprudent enough to blurt out in a press interview that the disengagement plan is “actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” In other words, in going through with the withdrawal, the ex-general Sharon is pursuing a number of objectives, ending the occupation and achieving peace not necessarily included.

Following the tactical manual familiar to any field commander, his first and most immediate aim is to protect his flanks by withdrawing from positions he knows to be vulnerable and indefensible. Indeed, sober-minded strategists have long argued that the Gaza Strip settlements — 7,000 Israelis embedded in a hostile Palestinian population outnumbering them 200 to 1 — are untenable in the long run. In discarding them, Sharon is merely evacuating exposed outposts whose preservation is excessively costly in manpower and hard cash.

All the same, this tactical withdrawal is widely seen — in Israel and in the international community alike — as a conciliatory step, for which Sharon has picked up some badly needed credit. This newfound aura of “peacenik” is reflected in the parliamentary balance, where his government survives on the votes of his long-time adversaries of the Labor Party, and even the left-leaning Meretz (Yahad) deputies support him against no-confidence motions tabled by the far right. In the international arena, the once reviled Sharon of Sabra and Shatila notoriety is once again persona grata.

It is a fine piece of role playing. As veteran patron of Israel’s colonization drive, designed to perpetuate its hold on the Occupied Territories, Sharon has not changed his spots — far from it. Even as the television cameras focus on the impending drama of the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon is going ahead with moves to consolidate his grasp on the West Bank heartland. While much controversy centers on whether or not completion of the disengagement plans requires that the 1,700 settler homes in Gaza be demolished, twice that number of housing units have been approved for construction in West Bank settlements, in defiance of the “road map” requirement for a total halt on expansion there. Construction of the cement-slab barrier around “Greater Jerusalem” moves ahead at a furious pace.

SHARON’S DRAMATIS PERSONAE

But the wiliest element of Sharon’s disengagement plan actually relies on the very opponents who campaign so vigorously to halt it. The erstwhile followers who now miss no opportunity to revile their former hero, while proclaiming their firm intention of going to the limits to foil his plans, may unwittingly be playing the dramatic role for which Sharon has cast them. With some 3,000 journalists from every corner of the globe scheduled to come to Gaza to report on the withdrawal, television viewers worldwide are to be riveted by heart-rending footage of entire settler families being dragged from their homes. Cameras will focus on bearded men clinging to doorposts, head-scarved women wailing in despair, tearful children struggling in the arms of policemen, “right-wing refuseniks” in the army disobeying orders to break down barricaded doors. A prelude came in late June, when Cpl. Avi Bieber abandoned an army unit tearing down already evacuated settler houses in Gaza. Israeli newspapers across the political spectrum ran a picture of Bieber yelling at his commander: “Jews do not expel Jews!” The denouement to this saga will be a tearjerker on a scale to make Hollywood green with envy, and the message will go out loud and clear: if this is the price Israel has to pay to remove 7,000 settlers, who would dare to demand the displacement of the quarter million residing in the West Bank?

That this is the scenario Sharon has in mind is suggested by the way the opposition is being handled by authorities not famous for their tolerance of dissent. Mere weeks ahead of the planned relocation, militants from the West Bank settlements — the ferocious “youngsters of the hilltops” — were streaming into the Gaza villages, until finally checked by the army roadblocks which control every access route. The Gaza Strip is under military control, and the local commander has the authority — regularly invoked to halt Israeli and Palestinian anti-occupation protesters — to proclaim a “closed military zone” into which entry is forbidden. That measure was belatedly and reluctantly imposed, but only after hundreds of militant reinforcements had poured in with the avowed intention of putting up violent resistance to the army and police.

In a further show of forbearance, the young zealots who have repeatedly blocked key highways throughout Israel are treated with kid-glove mildness by a police force that employed gunfire against Arab protesters who dared to do likewise in the early days of the 2000 intifada: 13 were killed, dozens injured. Israeli leftists and peace campaigners, whose non-violent protests encounter systematic beating and tear-gassing by police riot units, can only look on in envy as young rioters are hauled off the jammed roads by policemen taking evident care to avoid subjecting them to pain or discomfort.

Sharon launched his disengagement plan with multiple objectives in mind. The rival camps, whether conveying their views in orange or in blue and white, each have a role to play in their attainment. The blue-and-whites provide much needed public support for the mid-August relocation of settlers and soldiers. But the orange camp will also come in handy if or when Sharon comes under pressure to undertake further withdrawals.

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For background on the split between Sharon and his erstwhile supporters in the settler movement, see Neve Gordon, “The Militarist and Messianic Ideologies,” Middle East Report Online, July 8, 2004. www.merip.org/mero/mero070804.html

For a critical view on Israel’s post-disengagement strategy, see Gary Sussman, “Ariel Sharon and the Jordan Option,” Middle East Report Online, March 2005. www.merip.org/mero/interventions/sussman_interv.html

. Middle East Report Online is a free service of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).

  
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