Memorial Farm Splits Unity Government


DEBKAfile Special Report

20 October: The stormy controversy that erupted over a Jewish farm set up near Nablus in memory of Gilead Zar, who died in a terror attack on a West Bank road, bares once again the deep seam running down the middle of Ariel Sharon’s national unity government. This seam the prime minister consistently papers over at whatever cost to national assets and his credibility as a consensual leader. This time might be harder than usual, although, if Sharon runs true to form, he will tuck this crisis too out of sight.

Although by now, he has perfected his technique of give and take for the sake of specious amity, he knows he has no majority in his own Likud party for accommodating Labor on the settlement and other national issues. This fact he must keep in mind in relation to his rival Binyamin Netanyahu.

At the heart of the Zar farm controversy are two grave issues over which the Likud-led and Labor-led camps will never see eye to eye.

One concerns the (Labor) defense minister Binyamin bin Eliezer’s decision to dismantle by hook or by crook some two dozen unauthorized outposts that have sprung up on West Bank hilltops.

Most have been voluntarily evacuated. But a thousand settlers massed last week to block the dismantling of the Zar Farm. An understanding was reached to work the farm by day and leave no human habitation there by night. But then, on Saturday, October 19, troops and police were sent in to forcibly remove makeshift farm structures, thereby raising the second issue: The legitimacy of deploying troops and security personnel for this purpose on the Sabbath day.

In Saturday’s confrontation, some 30 were lightly injured on both sides. As the men in uniform dragged struggling settlers out of the sheds, more nipped back in. Others vandalized the bulldozer. The set-to went on into the small hours of Sunday.
Sunday morning, October 20, as the cabinet prepared to review the crisis at its weekly session, fresh troop reinforcements arrived with a large crane to finish the demolition of the last buildings standing in the site. Another 41 were injured – 24 servicemen and police, 17 protesters. Nine arrests were made.

The prime minister, as is his way, condemned the event out of both sides of his mouth. He blasted the settlers for resisting security forces, while “deeply deploring” the unnecessary desecration of the Sabbath forced upon hundreds of servicemen.
The defense minister has vowed to pull down all the illegal outposts. Although left-wing anti-settlement spokesmen speak of a hundred or more, they are most probably puffing up the figure by adding various building projects and extensions gradually added to the existing 150 Jewish communities living in theWest Bank and Gaza Strip. The first outposts went up at the end of the Clinton-Barak era, when various final-status and ceasefire plans were in the air. The next wave was a response to the almost daily attacks on Israeli vehicles on West Bank highways, in one of which Gilead Zar, northern West Bank regional security officer, lost his life. Many disappeared as the armed forces took over hilltop firing positions. Some furled their flags when the highways became safer. A few determined to stay for good.

As Labor leader, Binyamin Ben Eliezer has faced constant criticism in his own party for inaction on the remaining outposts, particularly since his rivals, in the coming leadership election, Haim Ramon and Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna, are increasingly left wing and opposed to any form of Jewish habitation in territory they regard as belonging to a future Palestinian state. The Likud charges him with underhandedly paving his way to the Labor primaries through the ruined outposts.

The main difference in the case of the Zar farm is that, whereas the other 230,000 Jewish inhabitants set up their communities on previously uninhabited state land, this farm was established on private property that Moshe Zar purchased for cash from its Arab owners.

Moshe Zar was a close friend and comrade at arms of Ariel Sharon. He now funds the diehard fringes of the settler movement who are disenchanted with their old champion’s performance as prime minister. They accuse Sharon of selling out the Jews’ biblical birthright for the sake of political survival. These factions, including the “the youth of the hilltops”, no longer accept the authority of the heads of the settlement movement whom they regard as living inSharon’s pocket. It is a fact that settlement activity, never accepted by the international community but approved by one Israeli government after another (Labor as well as Likud) since 1967, has virtually petered out. The Zar farm would have been the kernel of a new community, a center for the movement’s regeneration, which is why its supporters streamed from all over to save it from being torn down. That too is why the government nipped the project in the bud, just as former governments prevented a similar project rising south of Hebron at the Maon Farm, in memory of former terrorist victim Dov Driben.

Gilead’s brother, Oren Zar lamented: “This place was the answer to my brother’s murder. The Arabs want us out of here and we will strengthen our hold on the land. The land is our life.”

Most of Israel’s right wing thinkers and politicians dispute the link between Jewish habitation on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Palestinian terror, pointing out that Palestinian terrorist attacks by far predated the 1967 capture of these lands. They argue that, now as then, the real aim of Palestinian terror is Israel’s destruction and the obliteration of the marks of Jewish history and heritage in the land. “Jewish occupation” is but a useful term for making their violence acceptable to the international community. It does not cover the conversion of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus into a mosque, the torching of the ancient synagogue in Jericho, or the destruction of Jewish Temple relics on TempleMount, to which Jewish access is denied.

The left side of Israeli politics, which once accepted Jewish settlements on ownerless, uninhabited land, has veered round to the view of most foreign governments, that the settlements are an impediment to a peaceful solution of the Palestinian issue. They would urge the removal of most – though not all. The ones that must go, in their view, are the communities in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.

The theme is not entirely black and white. As Labor prime minister before Sharon, Ehud Barak offered much more than the most dedicated leftists ever contemplated. Overseas, the Bush administration has never subscribed to the majority international view urging the dismantling of Jewish settlements. Some overseas observers argue that Israel would be unwise to reward terrorism with the concession of land.

Sunday, the Israeli foreign ministry seriously faulted the European Union. Even the pro-Oslo accord foreign minister Shimon Peres angrily protested at the message European Union diplomats are systematically conveying to their Palestinian interlocutors: Stop the terrorist attacks inside Israel – and only inside Israel. In other words, killing Jews outside the old Green Line, military and settlers, is allowed.

The Sabbath issue may produce less fallout internationally than the settlements, but it runs as deep if not deeper at home. Most observant Jews serve in the armed forces. They are enabled to perform their duties on the Sabbath and festivals by the common acceptance of the precept that “saving lives takes precedence over the Sabbath”. When in doubt, the army’s Chief Rabbi is there to make a ruling. This status quo has never been challenged in any branch of the military service.

This Saturday, the soldiers called up to dismantle the farm were told that the chief military rabbi, Rabbi Col. Weiss, had authorized their mission. Later, he denied having been consulted. The defense minister then denied he had ordered the troops to go into action on Saturday. Someone else had issued the order, he said, and went on to accuse the settlers of mounting a rebellion.

The National Religious Party leader, Ephraim Eytam, riposted by calling him a liar and fool and demanded his dismissal.

Sunday, October 20, Israeli Chief of Staff. Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said it was a mistake to mobilize troops to remove the outpost on the Sabbath. He promised an inquiry.

The Sabbath argument pours extra fuel on the already incendiary settlement question. It also leaves the army at sea for the first time over their conduct on the Jewish day of rest, sowing new controversy in a fighting force engaged in day to day combat on one or more fronts. The troops must also digest the fact that their superiors lied to them, that their defense minister uses his job to play party politics, and that he has lost the respect of the top army command, which pays little heed to him in operational decisions. Ben Eliezer’s insistence on pulling the army out of Bethlehem (following Labor party criticism) has turned the town next door to Jerusalem into a sanctuary for Palestinian terrorists on the run; his latest drive to remove the army from Hebron will award them a second sanctuary. Nonetheless Sharon sanctioned the move in part.

In Washington, he is not officially welcome. Last week, Ben Eliezer traveled to Paris to persuade French leaders to use their influence in Damascus and Beirut to dissuade the HIzballah from escalating its cross-border violence. The following day, ceremonial pumping began under Hizballah protection on the Wazzani scheme to divert Israel’s water supply from the Jordan River. Friday, October 10, President Jacques Chirac publicly invited the Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who declares Israel has no right to exist, to sit in a place of honor at the Francophone nations’ summit in Beirut.

Yet the prime minister continues to give him more and more rope, a situation that cannot be lost on Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah.


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