by Uri Avnery
The most talented director could not have done better. It was a perfect show.
Television viewers all over the world saw heroic Israeli soldiers on their screens battling the fanatical settlers. Close-ups: faces twisted with passion, a soldier lying on a stretcher, a young woman crying in despair, children weeping, youngsters storming forward in fury, masses of people wrestling with each other. A battle of life and death.
There is no room for doubt: Ariel Sharon is leading a heroic fight against the settlers in order to fulfill his promise to remove "unauthorized" outposts, even "inhabited" ones. The old warrior is again facing a determined enemy without flinching.
The conclusion is self-evident, both in Israel and throughout the world: if such a tumultuous battle takes place for a tiny outpost inhabited by hardly a dozen people, how can one expect Sharon to remove 90 outposts, as promised in the Road Map? If things look like that when he has to remove a handful of tents and one small stone building - how can one even dream of evacuating real settlements, where dozens, hundreds or even thousands of families are living?
This must have impressed George Bush and his people.
Unfortunately, it has not impressed me.
It makes me laugh.
In the last few years I have witnessed dozens of confrontation with the army. I know what they really look like.
The Israeli army has already demolished thousands of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories. This is how it goes: early in the morning, hundreds of soldiers surround the land. Behind them come the tanks and bulldozers, and the action starts. When despair drives the inhabitants to resist, the soldiers hit them with sticks, throw tear gas grenades, shoot rubber-coated metal bullets and, if the resistance is stronger, live ammunition, too. Old people are thrown on the ground, women dragged along, young people handcuffed and pushed against the wall. After a few minutes, it's all over.
Well, they'll say, that's done to Arabs. They don't do this to Jews.
Wrong. They certainly do this to Jews. Depends who the Jews are.
I, for example, am a Jew. I have been attacked with tear gas five times so far. Once it was a special gas, and for a few moments I was afraid that I was going to choke to death.
During one of the blockades on Ramallah we decided to bring food to the beleaguered town. We were some three thousand Israeli peace activists, both Jews and Arabs. At the A-Ram checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, a line of policemen and soldiers stopped us. There was an exchange of insults and a lot of shouting. Suddenly we were showered with tear gas canisters. The thousands dispersed in panic, coughing and choking, some were trampled; one of our group, an 82-year old Jew and kibbutznik, was injured.
I have witnessed demonstrations in which rubber-coated bullets were shot at Israeli citizens (generally Arabs). Once I was in the gas-filled rooms of a school at Um-al-Fahem in Israel.
If the army had really wanted to evacuate Mitpe-Yitzhar quickly and efficiently, it would have used tear gas. The whole business would have been over in a few minutes. But then there would not have been dramatic pictures on TV, and George W. would have asked his friend Arik: "Hey, why don't you finish with all the outposts in a week?"
In other words, this was a well-produced show for TV.
A few days before, the leaders of the settlers met with Ariel Sharon. As they left and faced the cameras they uttered dark threats, but anyone who knows these people and looked at their faces on TV could see that there were no strong emotions at work. Of course, the "Yesha rabbis" (Yesha is settlerese for the West Bank), a group of bearded political functionaries, called on the soldiers to disobey orders and requested the LORD and the messiah to come to their help, but even they lacked real passion.
Why? Because all of them knew that everything has been agreed in advance. The army chiefs and the leaders of the settlers, comrades and partners for a long time, sat together and decided what would happen, and, more importantly, what would not happen: no sudden attack, no efforts to prevent thousands of young people from reaching the place well in advance, no use of sticks, water cannon, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets or any other means beyond the use of bare hands. The soldiers would not wear helmets nor be equipped with shields. The settlers would shout and push, but would not hit the soldiers in earnest. The whole show would be less violent then a normal scuffle with British soccer hooligans, but would look on TV like a desperate battle between titanic forces.
Ariel Sharon has some experience with this kind of thing. A dozen years ago he directed a similar show when, following the peace treaty with Egypt, he was ordered by Prime Minister Menahem Begin to evacuate the town of Yamit in the northern Sinai peninsula. At the time, Sharon was Minister if Defense. And who was one of the leaders of the dramatic resistance? Tsachi Hanegbi, now the minister in charge of the police.
All the arms of the establishment cooperated this week in the big show. The media devoted many hours to the "battle". Dozens of settlers were invited to the studios and talked endlessly - while, as far as I saw, not a single person belonging to the active peace camp was called to the microphone.
The courts, too, did their duty: the handful of settlers that were arrested for resisting violently were sent home after spending a day or two in jail. The courts, who never show any mercy when Arabs appear before them, treated the fanatical settlers like erring sons.
The whole comedy would have been funny, if it did not concern a very serious problem. Such an "outpost" looks like a harmless cluster of mobile homes on top of a god-forsaken hill, but it is far from being innocuous. It is a symptom of a cancerous growth. Not for nothing did Ariel Sharon - the very same Sharon - call upon the settlers a few years ago to take control of all the hills of "Judea and Samaria".
The disease develops like this: a group of rowdies occupies a hilltop, some miles from an established settlement, and puts a mobile home there. After some time, the "outpost" already consists of a number of mobile homes. A generator and a water-tower are brought in. Women with babies appear on the scene. A fence is set up. The army sends some units to defend them. They declare that for security reasons, Palestinians are not allowed to come near, in order to prevent them from spying and preparing an attack. The security zone becomes bigger and bigger. The inhabitants of the neighboring Palestinian villages cannot reach some of their orchards and fields any more. It someone tries, he is liable to be shot. Every settler has a weapon, and he has nothing to fear from the law if he uses it against a suspicious Arab. All Arabs are suspicious, of course.
As it so happens, I have some experience with Mitzpe Yitzhak, the particular outpost that figured in this week's show. Some months ago we were called by the inhabitants of the Palestinian village Habala to help them pick their olives in a grove near this "outpost". When the pickers came near to the outpost, the settlers opened fire. An Israeli in our group was wounded when a bullet struck a rock at his feet.
The "unauthorized" outposts were in fact established systematically, with the help of the army and according to its planning. When several outposts take root in a region, the Palestinian villages are choked between them. Their life becomes hell. The settlers and officers clearly hope that in the end they will give up and clear out.
Will Sharon really evacuate them by the dozens? That depends, of course, on his friend George W. If the "hudna" (truce) between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is achieved, Bush may perhaps exert serious pressure on Sharon. When I visited Yasser Arafat yesterday, he seemed to be cautiously optimistic. But he, too, said that there are no more than four months left for getting things moving: starting from November, the American President will be busy getting himself reelected.
This means that Sharon has only to produce a few more shows of this sort for television, and then he and the settlers will be able to breathe freely once again.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and activist. He is the founder of Gush Shalom, a leading Israeli peace group. He is a contributing writer to a collection of essays by Israeli peace activists, The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.