Buying Off the Settlers

Perhaps there are countries where drivers stuck in traffic jams don't get annoyed. They know they can do nothing about it, so they wait patiently. Think their own thoughts, listen to the radio or read until the jam disperses.

We Israelis are not like that. We are a nervous lot. We have no patience. When we are stuck in a jam, we curse the world and the government, demanding a solution, perhaps a dirt road by which we might escape.

This is why I find it so hard to understand the tactics of the settlers, who use the traffic jam as their main weapon. If they believe that by blocking major traffic arteries, burning tires and creating huge jams throughout the country they are going to win the sympathy of the public, they are even more divorced from reality than it seemed already.

Actually, the blocking of roads is a declaration of war against the Israeli public. It marks a clear front-line: the settlers and their adherents on one side and the majority of the population on the other.

That is, indeed, the real front-line. Their stupid tactics just confirm this. They sense that the great majority is against them and say, in effect: If you don't love us, at least fear us. If you don't submit to us, we shall turn your life into hell.

Even foreigners, who follow events on their television screens, can distinguish the creators of this mayhem from ordinary Israelis. Almost all the rioters are knitted-kippa-wearing religious youth, the products of the religious-messianic-nationalist-fanatical educational hothouses.

This is a minority, something between 15% and 25% of the population, but a well organized minority. Their hard core is concentrated in the settlements and the Yeshivot (religious seminaries) and is easy to mobilize. They have leaders with absolute authority, who stand effectively above the law. Their totalitarian discipline finds expression at election times, when 99% of the votes in religious neighborhoods go to the candidate chosen by their rabbis.

Such features lend this minority a power far beyond their numbers. Especially when faced with a weak-kneed, diffuse, apathetic, unorganized majority, without any coherent ideology. That is a classic situation, which has led in many countries to the establishment of fascist dictatorships on the ruins of a democracy that nobody was ready to stand up for.

In the superb German film "Der Untergang" (Downfall), which has reached Israel , too, one sees that even in the last hours of his life, Adolf Hitler expressed nothing but contempt for the "degenerate democracies." But the historic truth is that the "degenerate democracies" stood up to him. True, Britain and the United States would not have overcome him, 60 years ago, without the totalitarian Soviet Union on their side, but they proved that the democratic regime can be counted on at the moment of truth, can mobilize itself and fight even harder than the totalitarian states. The Third World War (the so-called "Cold War") has proved this again.

Is the Israeli democracy up to it?

An old Israeli joke tells of an Israeli captured by cannibals. They put him in a pot and start to light a fire under it, "Wait! Wait!" he shouts, "First of all hit me! Beat me!" When they do so, he jumps out of the pot, picks up his gun and shoots all of them.

"If you had a weapon, why didn't you use it before?" he is asked.

"I can only shoot when I am angry," he replies.

Perhaps that is true for all ordinary Israelis. In order to stand up to the settlers, they need to be angry. And the settlers, with the blindness typical of fanatics, are doing everything possible to make them angry. Their experience over the last 37 years has led them to believe that there is no limit to the cowardice, the indifference and the patience of the majority.

They have a lot of evidence for this belief, since all the media have turned themselves into willing propaganda organs for this dictatorial minority, which has declared war on the government, the Knesset and the entire democratic system.

We have already expounded on this amazing phenomenon: on every news program, in all TV networks, the settlers fill at least 50% of the time with an unending stream of tricks and gimmicks. In the absolute majority of cases, no contrary voice is heard at all, not even for the sake of "balance." The impression created is that this is a private war between the settlers and the Prime Minister (the "Successor of Hitler," as some graffiti have it), and does not concern the general public.

The height of absurdity is reached on State Television, which every citizen is compelled by law to support financially: the entire public pays for what is in practice an anti-State propaganda organ.

During the last years of the German Weimar republic, one of its remarkable traits was the tolerant attitude of the courts towards the Nazi hoodlums, who rioted, beat up passers-by who "looked Jewish," waged street battles with Communists, wounded and killed. They invariably got off with light sentences. The judges treated them as misguided good guys, real patriots who overdid it a bit. Anti-Nazis, on the other hand, when accused of the same behavior, were severely punished. Is something similar happening here?

Like judges, like policemen. That, too, reminds one of the situation here. When the police are faced with right-wing rioters, they never use tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, salt bullets or water cannon -- which are routinely used against Jewish peace demonstrators, not to mention Arab ones, who may be confronted with live rounds too.

All this is not too much for the ordinary Israeli, at least not up to now. But it is quite possible that money matters will be.

The settlers are playing a very sophisticated double game. Their leaders threaten civil war. On the walls there appear graffiti announcing "We have killed Rabin, we shall kill Sharon !" (Rabin's murderer did indeed come from this camp, but for years we were admonished not to mention this, because it might "split the nation.") Every day, spokespersons use the media to sketch blood-curdling scenarios: masses of sympathizers will march on Gush Katif, traffic throughout the country will come to a standstill, matters will "get out of hand," blood will be spilled.

At the same time, the representatives of the settlers negotiate the compensation they will be paid for their "uprooting." It starts at $400,000 and may reach several million for a family. They will also get a luxurious mobile home, worth half a million Shekels, for temporary accommodation, and it is theirs to keep even after the government builds them a permanent home. There are also plans to give the settlers a whole stretch of territory north of Ashkelon , where they will enjoy what amounts to de facto local autonomy. It is proposed to give them two dunums for one, the land to be taken from Kibbutzim and Moshavim. One settler lady boasted on television about her 35 hothouses, each worth $200,000, for which she expects full compensation.

The fanatics declare that they will not take the money, that they will fight to the last drop of blood. But in practice, every threat just raises the price. The more extreme the language of the settlers, the more money the government is frightened into offering. Hundreds of thousands will march on Gush Katif? Fifty thousand dollars more per family. Thousands of soldiers will refuse orders? Another $100,000. Blood will flow? Two hundred thousand more. The sky is the limit.

But we have seen this opera before. We remember the evacuation of the Yamir region in North Sinai in 1982. Settlers threatened suicide in a bunker, Tzahi Hanegbi (now a minister) and his comrades climbed a tall tower, zealots promised violent resistance. It ended with the farce of the white foam battles on the roofs. And what about the money? In the end, not one single settler -- not one! -- refused to accept the fat compensation on offer. Some of them settled in Gush Katif and will now receive compensation for the second time. If they are shrewd enough to move to a West Bank settlement, they could finish up as very rich people indeed.

All this is happening while thousands of teachers are being dismissed for lack of funds, vital welfare institutions are being closed, cancer patients and others are being condemned to death because their medicines fall outside the "health basket" that qualifies for government subsidy.

And that may, in the end, arouse even the apathetic majority. The moment will come when it will get up and say: Enough! If one looks carefully, one may already discern signs of a rising tide of anger, the "I am not a sucker!" syndrome.

That may be the most positive outcome of what is happening now around the "disengagement plan": The abyss between the settlers and the general public is growing ever wider. The settlers themselves, in their unlimited avarice and hooliganism, are helping to bring this about. Nothing symbolizes this better than the blocking of the roads.

This Tuesday Israel's most popular TV network (Channel 2) launches a five-chapter series with Israel 's most popular anchorman, Haim Yavin, a veritable "Mr. Consensus," depicting the settlers as "a fanatical, crazy, racist, disgusting, violent and dangerous sect," in the words of a prominent critic.

Could the consensus be changing?

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Uri Avnery's picture
Columns on STR: 123

Uri Avnery is a peace activist.