Scene I: Mid-February, the police lock-up in downtown Jerusalem's Russian Compound
Twenty teenage girls held overnight for blocking a major thoroughfare go berserk, leaving a trail of smashed chairs and tables, of broken basins, toilets and faucets ripped from their sockets. They belong to an extreme far-right movement, Fortress Judah, which advocates the forcible expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the territories, and vehemently opposes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank this summer. One of the rampaging young girls is Ayalah, the 17-year-old wife of Itamar Ben-Gvir, 28, a burly, round-faced movement leader, who just days before heckled and waved his fists at Education Minister Limor Livnat at close range during a public appearance.
These extremist followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane radiate a continuous threat of political violence. They will stop at nothing to foil Sharon's plan, warn agents of the Shin Bet security service. There are fears that, just as prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an extreme right-wing Jew in 1995, one of the Kahanists, or someone close to them ideologically, could target Sharon. On a cell wall, the young girls have scratched out a macabre variation on an Israeli song of nearly 40 years ago. The slogan in the cell reads: "Rabin is waiting for Arik."
Scene II: Late February, Neveh Dekalim, the largest settlement in the Katif Bloc of the Gaza Strip
About a thousand Orthodox Gaza settlers listen in rapt attention as lawyer Yossi Fuchs of the Katif Bloc Legal Forum presents a strategy to delay Sharon's plan to evacuate them. He explains that he doubts the courts will rule favorably on a general petition to disqualify the plan in its entirety. But he says that hundreds of specific suits - over loss of income, violation of rights, inadequate compensation for property or a host of other issues - by individual settlers could lead to a tangle of injunctions tying up any action indefinitely. The settlers recite psalms and sing "Hatikvah."
Scene III: Late February, the Jerusalem headquarters of the Council of Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza
Twenty-five settler leaders gather in emergency session around a long polished boardroom table a day after the cabinet's authorization of Sharon's plan. The morning is devoted to political and PR action against the plan, the afternoon to "practical steps." The leaders emerge with a two-pronged strategy: to go on pressing for a referendum on disengagement and, failing that, to flood the areas designated for evacuation with tens or even hundreds of thousands of supporters to help settlers physically block police and army efforts to remove them. The council members set up a "general staff" to work out the details. Settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein, who a few days earlier declared that settlers and their supporters should be "ready to risk their lives" to reach the evacuation areas, dubs it the "Judgment Day" team.
These scenes demonstrate what lies ahead in the struggle over evacuation. Together they reveal the three major strategies that Israeli authorities expect opponents of disengagement to adopt: precipitating "a cata-clysmic event that changes the course of history"; using the system to beat the system; and scuttling the disengagement plan by sheer weight of numbers.
As far as the government is concerned, the evacuation of Gaza and a piece of the West Bank is a done deal. On February 16, by a vote of 59-40, the Knesset passed the law approving evacuation of Jewish settlements and compensation for the evacuees. Four days later, the cabinet voted 17 to 5 in favor of the plan to withdraw from all 18 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank between July 20 and September 22. Moreover, a slew of late-February polls showed the country solidly behind the prime minister on disengagement, by a 2-1 majority.
But right-wing opponents of the plan are not about to quit now. For many, the scheduled evacuation means more than a skirmish over the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank. Rather, they believe, it is the crucial first stage of a much wider battle for the whole of Biblical Judea and Samaria. It is a struggle they feel they must not lose because of the implications that would have for maintaining the entirety of the Land of Israel and, as some see it, the momentum leading to the coming of the messiah.
Conversely, the government feels it must win for the sake of Israeli democracy, the rule of law, and Israel's future on the international stage.
Ranged against each other are many of the same secular and religious forces that clashed a decade ago over the Oslo Accords in a struggle that culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Many Israelis speak about a sense of dej vu. The same angry rhetoric has surfaced in graffiti across the country and in hate letters to government ministers and Knesset members. Sharon has been branded a dictator and shown in photomontage wearing the uniform of Joseph Stalin, much as Rabin was depicted as an SS officer.
Rhetoric about the "Nazi" government is rife too. Settler extremist Hagi Ben-Artzi compared the day the government passed the disengagement plan to the day Hitler came to power. And in a late February rally in Jerusalem, messianic Chabad rabbis, wearing sackcloth as a sign of mourning, accused Sharon of leading the people of Israel to "another Holocaust."
One of the organizers, Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, of the Committee for the Salvation of the People and the Land of Israel, warned that the prime minister would be brought to trial and punished. Again a strong whiff of political violence is in the air. And this time, right-wingers warn that the situation could deteriorate into something approaching civil war.
But will it? Twenty-three years ago, in the run-up to the evacuation of the Sinai town of Yamit as part of the deal with Egypt, the Movement for Halting the Retreat from Sinai threatened a similar outcome. But by evacuation day in April 1982, most of the settlers had left voluntarily, and only 200 right-wing protesters, most of them students, turned up to resist the IDF's small evacuating force. The easily controlled confrontation lasted only a few hours, and no one was hurt.
Today left-wingers argue that the term "civil war" is a wild exaggeration designed to cow politicians into accepting the right's demands. Nevertheless, it is clear that right-wing groups have started planning in earnest to take on the state - and that the IDF, the police and the Shin Bet are preparing to meet the gathering storm. With the battle lines drawn, two questions arise: Can Sharon carry his disengagement policy through? And, as the struggle intensifies, how real is the threat to Israeli society?
The Cataclysmic Event
From fortress Judah's office in central Jerusalem, young Kahanists track the media and get calls and e-mails from supporters to monitor the daily movements of government ministers. They say they do it so they can harass the politicians at will. But the fact that their movements can be monitored in this way, and the close range from which they are heckled from time to time, shows just how vulnerable ministers might be to an assassination attempt.
The Kahanists have three dominant leaders: Itamar Ben-Gvir, often seen directing demonstrations or harassing ministers; Noam Federman, who calls Sharon the head of a "criminal family"; and Baruch Marzel, who declared in a recent interview: "We will behave as if at war. And, God willing, there will be surprises."
The three, no strangers to violence - mainly against Arabs - have been detained dozens of times, but are now out of jail, although Federman is under house arrest. The Shin Bet's Jewish Branch keeps close tabs on them, but does not think they or their immediate followers will become assassins. It sees the threat as coming from a less easily identified ideological hard-core activist or hanger-on. Says Deputy Internal Security Minister Ya'akov Edri of the Likud: "There are only several dozen active right-wing extremists. We think we know most of them. But there's always the possibility of the one lurking in the shadows you don't know about."
The number of active Kahanists may be small, but their ideological hinterland is much wider. The attendance at the Chabad rally in Jerusalem pointed to ideological connections between the Kahanists and the more radical settler leaders. On one side of the stage, Ben-Gvir and Marzel mingled with Chabad luminaries; on the other, Dov Lior, chairman of the Committee of Rabbis in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and known for his political extremism, was accorded a place of honor. Although most settler leaders and rabbis pointedly stayed away, Lior's presence suggested at least pockets of ideological affinity. Police fear a would-be assassin could come from the wider ideological circle. In late February, Shin Bet Chief Avi Dichter reported to the cabinet on a spate of threatening statements by extremists overheard by his agents. Some examples: "Those who give up the Land of Israel must die"; "Sharon will meet Arafat in hell"; and "We have to pray for Sharon's death to stop the political process."
Besides the threat to Sharon, the police identify two other potentially "cataclysmic" events: An attack on the mosques of the Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims the world over; or indiscriminate gunning down of Arab civilians, following the example of Kahanist Baruch Goldstein's massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs in February 1994. An event of either kind could inflame the Muslim world, disrupt the nascent accommodation with the new Palestinian leadership and jeopardize Sharon's disengagement plan.
In early February police reported "intelligence of a general sort" of an impending attack on the Temple Mount. On February 22, National Police Chief Moshe Karadi told the Knesset's Finance Committee that he wanted 187 more men and an additional 61 million shekels ($ 14 million) to beef up security at the holy site. Over the next few days, police called in the media to show the tight measures already in place to cope with what they see as an emergency situation: cameras in strategic places, stringent body checks for all visitors, ground patrols and spotter planes.
With the planned evacuation of settlements only five months away, Interior Security Minister Gidon Ezra promises an early clampdown on the far right to reduce the threat of political violence. "We won't allow any more blocking of intersections," he declares. "And weapons will be confiscated from all those we consider dangerous." More than that, he plans to place some of the "dangerous people" under administrative detention, making use of an Israeli law usually aimed at Palestinians to jail them for fixed periods without trial in the name of public safety.
Over the past several weeks, The Report has learned, Ezra held close consultations with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Attorney General Menahem Mazuz - whose office would have to justify the jailings before judges - on the controversial issue of administrative detention. These exchanges resulted in the formation of a special team of prosecutors to coordinate with police and the Shin Bet on measures against people inciting or resorting to violence. Administrative detention may now be an option, police sources told The Report.
Left-wing politicians and pundits, though, are not impressed. So far, says Moshe Negbi, legal commentator for Israel Radio and a Hebrew University lecturer, Israeli democracy has done precious little to protect itself from the far right. Negbi (a Jerusalem Report contributing editor) notes that the country's anti-incitement law, amended in 2002, requires only a "realistic possibility" and not "virtual certainty" that words will lead to violence to put people behind bars for up to five years. But the law has not been invoked even once since it was amended, he says.
Negbi's comments point to the complex human-rights issues in the impending crisis. He opposes administrative detention but believes the "shouting 'Fire' in a crowded theater" principle justifies prosecuting for speech that could lead to violence. "Why should you hold people like Itamar Ben-Gvir in administrative detention when you can put them behind bars for incitement in a totally democratic way?" he argues.
Negbi, however, is skeptical about an imminent clampdown. He notes that the state prosecution recently dropped incitement charges against extremist rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, author of a book glorifying Hebron mass murderer Goldstein, in return for an expression of regret for more recent comments in the same vein.
Using the System to Beat the System
The official settler leadership, the settlement Council, regularly seeks to dissociate itself from the most extreme right, and maintains that there is a chance of delaying or scuttling the disengagement plan by legal and political means. In the Katif Bloc, lawyer Fuchs is collecting affidavits with objections to their evacuation from hundreds of settler families, with which he plans to inundate the courts.
In Jerusalem, in a bid to affect the planned vote calling for a referendum at an early March Likud Central Committee meeting, settler leaders have been signing up Likud MKs and ministers on a petition calling for a national vote.
Despite Sharon's adamant opposition, they argue that the referendum idea is far from dead, and are focusing efforts on the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. So far, 27 out of 40 members of the Likud Knesset delegation have signed the petition, and the settler leaders are trying to persuade Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef to reverse his anti-referendum position. A bill for a referendum backed by Shas and most of the Likud could win a majority in the Knesset with the help of hard-line right-wing parties, forcing Sharon to hold up withdrawal until a national vote.
To gain wider backing for a referendum, the settlers have softened their stance. Originally, they hoped to neutralize the Israeli Arab vote by requiring passage by a special majority. "Now we realize there is little hope of getting something like that written into the law," explains Settlement Council member Adi Mintz. "So we are prepared to settle for a normal majority of anything over 50 percent."
If this last throw of the referendum dice fails, the settlers will lobby against the national budget. By law, if the budget does not pass by March 31, national elections must take place - and Sharon is still struggling to line up a majority. And if that fails too, they will start preparing in earnest for the big showdown against the army and police on evacuation day.
Drowning by Numbers
Shimon Riklin, 41, a leader of the more militant younger generation of settlers, doesn't believe the political and legal steps will do much good. Nor does he think there will be any "cataclysmic event." Before the Rabin assassination, Riklin warned that the prime minister might be a target. And in 2000, he reported talk of assassinating then-prime minister Ehud Barak. "There is nothing like that today with regard to Sharon," he says. "There is no need. People here are confident in their ability to stop the disengagement by sheer weight of numbers."
In contrast to the small numbers at the Yamit pullout, Riklin claims that between 50,000 and 100,000 people will get into Gaza by evacuation day and that Israeli security forces will have no chance of evacuating them. He says many will enter the Strip before the army closes the roads in May, and that the result will be an almighty clash.
"I have no doubt there will be bloodshed. Not that we will use firearms, but left-wing soldiers might," he says, shifting responsibility for violence in advance. "It's going to be crazy, unlike anything we have ever seen before. I've been in evacuations of 400 people (from unauthorized outposts in the West Bank). Arms and legs were broken. Imagine what will happen when there are tens of thousands on both sides."
At Neveh Dekalim, military historian Arye Yitzhaki says he intends to place no fewer than 400,000 people in and around the Gaza area to resist the planned evacuation. He claims the organization he heads already has 200,000 religious recruits who know exactly where they have to go on evacuation day, and that he is now recruiting another 200,000 among secular right-wingers. "With a huge mass of hundreds of thousands, each at a defined spot, we will stop the army and police from reaching the targets for evacuation, and there will be no disengagement," he says.
Mintz scornfully dismisses Yitzhaki's claims, but he suggests that the Settlement Council will try to mount an operation on almost that scale: "I recommend listening to people who have the power to actually do things, and not those who grab a microphone to fantasize. Only one central body has the power to operate, and that's the council. That's the body with the tools to organize the 250,000 settlers and their supporters in the public at large." Mintz's own claims await the test of reality. Only a fraction of the quarter-million Israelis living in the territories belong to the ideological religious settler movement, and support among the rest is a complete unknown. On the other hand, young people from throughout Israel could also come to the protest happening.
Recruiting the settler "army," working out the logistics and the operational details, as well as teaching recruits how to avoid roadblocks and setting limits on how far they can go in unarmed resistance, will be the task of the "Judgment Day" team set up in late February.
The army and police are taking the drowning-by-numbers scenario very seriously and are gearing up to meet the threat of hundreds of thousands descending on Gaza to foil the evacuation. The current plan is to ring the settlements designated for evacuation with five circles of police and soldiers. The inner circle will deal with evacuating settlers and any other activists who get in. The other four are intended to keep others out of the evacuation area. The fifth and widest circle will be in Israel proper, designed to keep the would-be reinforcements out of Gaza altogether.
"We expect thousands of people to come, some by car, some on foot, and we intend to have a tight enough cordon to cut them off. If they get through the outer circle, they will have to pierce the next one, and so on," Deputy Minister Edri explains.
According to Edri, 18,000 police and two army divisions - tens of thousands of soldiers - will be deployed in the operation. The police will be unarmed in an effort to avoid escalation and bloodshed, but special forces will be on hand to respond quickly if there is any shooting by anti-evacuation activists. The army will be responsible for one circle to prevent Palestinian violence against the evacuees, and, if necessary, provide armed reinforcements to police dealing with the settlers and supporters.
The inner circle will be made up of 5,000 police, Border Police and some soldiers, all without lethal weapons. The police and army hope that the evacuees will employ only passive resistance, but they are prepared for "horror" scenarios too: settlers welding their homes shut and threatening to blow themselves up by igniting cooking gas canisters; residents firing from rooftops or releasing attack dogs. In such circumstances, the police will be able to call on armed troops, heavy mechanical equipment, helicopters and steel cages to lift settlers from the rooftops.
"We cannot afford to fail," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared in a mid-February meeting with army top brass.
Cracks in the Settler Front
The security forces can take heart from some cracks in settler solidarity. To start, the police and army estimate that only about half the settlers slated for evacuation will resist. When settler leaders toured the Ganim and Kadim settlements in the northern West Bank in late February, the message from many of the predominantly secular settlers there was: "Your struggle is not our struggle. Let us leave in peace." The problem for the police and army is that the empty houses could be filled with activists from outside - which underlines the need for the "ring defense."
More worrying for the settler leadership is the position against resistance taken by one of their most respected rabbis, Shlomo Aviner of Beit El, who also heads the Ateret Cohanim yeshivah in Jerusalem. "On evacuation day, people should get up and leave their homes without any use of force," Aviner told the Yediot Aharonot Ynet website in late February. Even passive resistance, he said, could lead to violence, which he rejects. Earlier, Aviner incurred the wrath of rabbinical colleagues when he came out against the refusal by soldiers to obey orders to evacuate settlers on the grounds that it could split the army.
Aviner says his rulings against resistance and refusal are based on a deep concern for the unity of the Israeli people. "The worst thing about what Sharon is doing is that he's tearing the nation apart," he asserts.
But where Aviner stresses the danger of splitting the people, most other settler rabbis are more concerned about dividing the land. Four years ago, Rabbi Daniel Shilo of Kedumim denounced the handover of part of the Land of Israel to non-Jews as treason. Today he is careful not to use the T-word, but he remains categorically opposed to any withdrawal from the territories. "The halakhah forbids transfer of land in Israel from Jews to gentiles. Whoever does so violates the Torah. I can't call it treason. But it's an extreme violation of religious law," he told The Jerusalem Report.
In many ways the argument between the two rabbis encapsulates Sharon's dilemma: how to split the land without dividing the people into two traumatized and irreconcilable factions. The next several months will test the nation's institutions, its social fabric and its capacity to maintain a bedrock of shared values. The withdrawal may help promote peace with the Palestinians. But if the opposition puts up a stronger fight than it did at Yamit, what will the withdrawal do to peace among the Israelis?