On the face of it, the struggle between Israeli troops and a group of unruly young settlers for control of a windswept West Bank hilltop does not seem all that important.
The illegal outpost, known as Gilad Farm, is minuscule; evacuating it was not part of any breakthrough deal with the Palestinians, and leaving it up or taking it down doesn't make any substantial difference to the map of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But the battle for Gilad Farm goes to the heart of Israel's most divisive political dilemma: Should the Jewish State evacuate settlements for peace -- and, even if it decides to, will it be able to do so?
Israelis have long feared that a political decision to dismantle settlements could result in a civil war, pitting left against right and Israeli settlers against Israeli soldiers carrying out government orders. Yet an unwillingness to evacuate some settlements would appear to complicate the chances for a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians.
The importance of the battle for Gilad Farm lies largely in its being a dress rehearsal for a much bigger confrontation if Israel and the Palestinians finally sign a peace agreement that includes Israeli evacuation from most of the West Bank. In addition, failing to impose the rule of law on unruly settlers, who feel they answer to a higher morality, has obvious ramifications for the stability of the state.
The standoff also is part of a domestic political struggle that could have implications for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national unity government. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is widely seen as using the evacuation issue to shore up his fading chances in next month's Labor Party leadership race. He has gone so far as to threaten to resign if he feels he doesn't have Sharon's backing for evacuating the illegal outposts.
The start of the evacuation of Gilad Farm did not augur anything like the violence that was to follow. Moshe Zar, the father of Gilad Zar -- who was killed by Palestinians at the site and for whom the farm is named -- urged dozens of young settlers who had gathered to oppose the army to disperse quietly and enable a peaceful evacuation.
However, the young settlers paid no heed. When soldiers and policemen tried to move them, they lashed out wildly, showing utter contempt for the organs of state sent in to uphold the rule of law -- including soldiers whose efforts to protect West Bank settlers from Palestinians frequently places the soldiers in life-threatening situations.
Leaders of the settlers' YESHA Council said they no longer can control an unruly element among the "hilltop youth" that listens to no one. The hilltop dissidents, they said, were acting on their own and certainly not doing the settler movement's bidding.
However, left-wing politicians charge that settler leaders' calls for the protesters to desist were disingenuous. The settler leaders, they noted, spoke out against striking soldiers or police, but said nothing about evacuating the site peacefully. In fact, almost immediately after the YESHA Council denounced the violence, some settler leaders turned up to demonstrate against the evacuation.
The National Religious Party (NRP), the main settler political party, also was accused of condemning the violence with an ambivalence that might have encouraged the settlers.
The settlers and NRP politicians understood that what happens at Gilad Farm could create a precedent for future attempts to evacuate settlements on a wider scale. Some analysts believe the violence suited them, because they want to show the Israeli public and decision-makers just how difficult it will be to evacuate the settlements.
"If that's what we get when we evacuate one tiny outpost, just think what will happen if we try to move the inhabitants of Kiryat Arba, Elon Moreh, Tamar, Yitzhar, Susiah and all the other isolated settlements into the big settlement blocks," political analyst Shalom Yerushalmi wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper.
The left also is concerned by what it sees as a return to the confrontational atmosphere that preceded the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with militant young settlers flouting the law, and rabbis authorizing resistance to the state in the name of a higher morality. Moreover, according to some reports, the Shin Bet is concerned about the growing number of threats on Ben-Eliezer's life.
"History does not repeat itself on a one-to-one basis, but the processes are similar," Alex Fishman wrote in an editorial in the Yediot Achronot newspaper. "God help us if this time it also ends with three bullets in the back,"
As for the danger to the unity government, few in the Israeli political establishment take Ben-Eliezer's threat to quit the government seriously. On the contrary, pundits are saying he engineered the crisis with the settlers and the NRP to impress Labor Party primary voters and flaunt his readiness to quit over ideology.
The truth, the pundits say, is that Ben-Eliezer and Sharon have been working in cahoots, with Sharon helping Ben-Eliezer's candidacy by allowing him to move against illegal outposts, and Ben-Eliezer keeping his party in the coalition for as long as possible.
Sharon prefers Ben-Eliezer to the other Labor candidates precisely because he knows that if either Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna or legislator Haim Ramon wins the party leadership, Labor will leave the government quickly.
Ben-Eliezer is said to have planned the evacuations meticulously a few weeks ago and deliberately ordered an evacuation on Saturday night -- with soldiers moving into position during the Sabbath -- knowing that the Sabbath desecration would lead to outcries from the NRP.
A vicious personal attack on Ben-Eliezer by NRP leader Efraim Eitam -- he called him a "stupid, cowardly liar" who was unfit to be defense minister -- was, according to the pundits, music to Ben-Eliezer's ears. The more the right attacks him, the thinking goes, the more votes Ben-Eliezer is likely to pick up on Labor's left, which otherwise tends to support Mitzna or Ramon.
Time will tell who has played the best hand: Sharon, Ben-Eliezer or the settlers.
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