Several months ago, residents of the Arab village of Bidya on the West Bank assassinated their mukhtar, or headman, whom they had accused of being an Israeli collaborator. The mukhtar, Mustafa Salim Abu Bakr, was a well-known land speculator who villagers claim defrauded them out of hundreds of dunams of land by, in some cases, tricking them into signing over to him the deeds to their property. Like many mukhtars on the West Bank, Abu Bakr had been appointed by the Israeli Civil Administration to run the village and to act as a middleman between the villagers and the authorities. He was supplied with Uzi machine guns and a beeper that connected him to the nearby Jewish settlement of Ariel, which sent squads of armed settlers to Bidya whenever he called for protection. Abu Bakr passed out the weapons among a small band of followers, who used them to intimidate the villagers and to collect “taxes” from them. The villagers twice appealed to the Israeli Civil Administration to remove Abu Bakr. In November 1986, the house of the villager who led the opposition against the mukhtar was riddled with machine-gun fire.
Abu Bakr himself survived six assassination attempts, including one early last year in which several villagers rammed his car with a Dodge Plymouth as he pulled out of his driveway one morning. The mukhtar was unhurt. But his nineteen-year-old pregnant daughter had been sitting in the back seat and was crushed to death by the Plymouth—a car the villagers had selected for its size and weight. A few months later, on March 5, 1988, young people in the village threw firebombs at Abu Bakr’s house. Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers quickly intervened; they arrested several young men who had allegedly taken part in the killing of his daughter, put the village under curfew, demolished three houses, and uprooted more than two hundred olive trees.
The military government finally gave in to the villagers’ request and on May 15, 1988, dismissed Abu Bakr. But before the order could take effect, Abu Bakr sold Bidya’s water pumping and electrical equipment. Then last September Abu Bakr was shot to death by two masked men as he was driving in front of Bidya’s high school. The gunmen set fire to his corpse as villagers looked on. “It was our biggest achievement of the intifada,” said Amir Abu Bakr, the director of Bidya’s high school, which, along with all other West Bank schools, has been shut down by the Israelis in reprisal for stone throwing and other activities.
According to the Associated Press, at least forty-five Arabs suspected of collaborating with the Israelis have been killed by Palestinian militants since the beginning of the intifada. Palestinian sources told me that PLO officials in Tunis approve most orders to kill suspected collaborators after underground trials have been conducted by local Palestinian activists.
Soon after the shooting, in which the mukhtar’s eight-year-old son was seriously wounded, Bidya was surrounded by 150 soldiers and settlers from Ariel. The entrances to the village were blocked with earthen barricades, and all the men between the ages of fourteen and forty were herded into the mosque for questioning. Seven villagers, including the sheik of the village mosque, were subsequently arrested in connection with the assassination and are now in prison awaiting trial. Five houses belonging to the suspects were blown up by the army and another house was sealed, leaving forty-five people homeless. Bidya was placed under curfew for four days. Israeli soldiers forced villagers to remove stones and bottles from their roofs, to paint over nationalist graffiti, and to take down Palestinian flags from trees and telephone poles.
I drove to Bidya in March with Osama Odeh, a thirty-three-year-old chemical engineer from Ramallah, whose family has had a house there, he told me, for 125 years. Bidya is a nondescript dust-shrouded farming village of some three thousand people near the Nablus-Tel Aviv highway, which is heavily used by Israeli settlers. Passing Israeli cars and trucks have frequently been attacked with stones and firebombs by the people of Bidya, and several settlers have been injured. In reprisal, Bidya has been raided by the army and by groups of settlers. Last January, soldiers entered Bidya at 3 AM, rounded up the men, and forced them to sit in a freezing drizzle in the high-school courtyard while an Israeli official confiscated the identification papers of residents who had not paid Israeli taxes. The authorities have raised the taxes Palestinians must pay in the occupied territories to cover the costs of putting down the intifada, and many Palestinians have stopped paying them as an act of resistance.
Shortly before our visit, Osama’s three-story stone house, which was standing vacant at the time, was broken into by Israeli soldiers, who, according to villagers, were looking for an illegal printing press. The cast-iron front door was blown off its hinges by an explosive charge. Furniture, mirrors, and windows were smashed, and food scattered. Someone mixed salt in the coffee. A glass frame holding a medical diploma belonging to Osama’s uncle, a doctor in West Germany, lay shattered in the study, along with a microscope and other expensive medical equipment. Hundreds of books were pulled from their shelves and lay in heaps in the library. They included A Short History of the Saracens, published in 1924; a Kansas State College bulletin from 1947-1948; and a leather-bound copy of The Knights of the Round Table. “It’s very sad they did such things to books,” Osama said.
Osama made arrangements to hire some workmen from the village to clean up and repair the damage. Then we walked along an unpaved street to the house of his cousin, the educator Amir Abu Bakr. We were joined by several other men, including Mohammed Odeh, Osama’s twenty-seven-year-old cousin, who had spent five years in prison for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli army jeep. The men were reluctant to talk about the intifada because they said they feared reprisals. They spoke with satisfaction about the mukhtar’s murder and the new town council they recently set up, in defiance of the military, to run village affairs. As far as I could learn later on, Bidya’s is the only independent Palestinian town council in the territories. Palestinian town councils are appointed by the Israeli authorities. Bidya’s new town council is part of a new system of government that has been emerging during the intifada.
Like most other West Bank Arab villages, Bidya includes members of various PLO factions and Marxist groups, as well as the Hammas—an Islamic fundamentalist movement created in the spring of 1988 as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. But as with most of the other rural villages on the West Bank, Yasser Arafat’s mainstream Fatah has overwhelming support in Bidya. There is also a small but influential group of Communists that both Israeli and Palestinian sources told me has had a central part in planning much of the local resistance to the occupation.1 The Islamic fundamentalists are especially strong in Gaza, where they were originally encouraged by the Israeli authorities as a counterforce to the PLO. The Hammas have denounced Arafat for recognizing Israel; their underground communiqués sometimes quote from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The intifada itself has been coordinated by underground popular committees made up of all the Palestinian factions, except for the Hammas. Secular Palestinian nationalists I spoke to believe Israel is still supporting the Hammas in order to divide the Palestinian community, although they had no evidence that this was so.
The villagers in Bidya are engaged in a sharp debate over whether Arafat has gone too far in recognizing the Jewish state. But while they seemed to have little enthusiasm for coexistence, many of Bidya’s men work in Israel and would like to continue to do so. “It’s mutually convenient,” said Mohammed Odeh. If there is one thing the men agree on, however, it is their hatred of Ariel, the large Jewish settlement that looms over the village. Ariel sits on land that was either confiscated by the army for what it claimed were security reasons, or willingly sold by nearby villagers, or, according to some villagers, acquired by fraud by Arab middlemen such as Abu Bakr.
Ariel has a vigilante militia force that has often attacked Bidya. Within the last few months, groups of settlers from Ariel—sometimes as many as three hundred people—have pulled villagers from their houses and cars in order to beat them; they have smashed their windows and burned their olive trees. After the first such attack last February, settlers left behind a flyer in Arabic, warning that violence is a “two-edged sword,” and if the residents of Bidya continue to throw stones and firebombs at Jews, both the villagers and their property will be “destroyed.”
But as I soon learned, the Jewish settlers live in fear, the fear that the intifada will destroy their dream of “Greater Israel.” Indeed, for the 140-odd Jewish settlements scattered across the occupied territories, there is a new, depressing reality. Overnight, it seems, the Palestinians have been transformed from an easily intimidated people into determined fighters. “The settlers are now facing a proud, self-confident nation, with the chutzpah of a proud people,” said Dede Zucker, the Knesset member of the left-wing Citizens’ Rights Movement party. “The rules of the game have changed.”
After Osama and I left his cousin’s house, he dropped me off at the entrance to Ariel—a gleaming town of about eight thousand people who live in tree-shaded villas and row after row of low-rise apartment blocks set into the Samarian hillside. I had been invited to watch the making of a promotional film that Ariel’s mayor planned to show on a fund-raising tour of America scheduled for this autumn. To hear the citizens of Ariel tell their story to the camera, one would never guess that an Arab rebellion threatened their presence on the West Bank, or that Ariel now had a well-armed militia, or that the militia’s leader is said to be Ariel’s mayor.
As klieg lights glowed, a young Jewish couple in their late thirties from Portland, Oregon, seated in their neatly furnished apartment, told an off-camera interviewer why they moved to Ariel: “The first time we came here,” said Naomi, a black American teacher of English who has converted to Judaism, “there was nothing here but Arabs and rocks. I thought we had lost our way.”
“Now five years later we are a city of eight thousand residents, with stores, parks, a good school system,” interjected Naomi’s husband Dan, a soft-spoken computer engineer.
“It’s such a wonderful feeling to see a town grow up around you,” Naomi continued.
I remember the day when my neighbor got a telephone. I opened a bottle of wine and we danced on the table…. It’s important to make Aliya, but in Ariel it really counts. My three-year-old was born in the city, and my eight-year-old can go anywhere in town even at night without me having to worry. It’s like one big family…. People say I sound like a salesman, but I love it here. I couldn’t live anyplace else.
“It’s home,” said Dan. “It’s almost impossible to put into words.”
The crew had been filming in Ariel since early morning. The film will be used to show potential donors and settlers in America, who have been troubled about the intifada, that Ariel has much in common with a well-to-do American suburb. “We want cable TV, a good transportation system—all that good American suburban stuff,” Dina Shalit, the forty-year-old Canadian-born assistant to the mayor, told me. “People move to Ariel for the same reasons Americans move to the suburbs.”
On the surface, Ariel certainly seems a place many Israelis—not to mention many Americans—might find attractive. It has the look and feel of an American Sunbelt suburb in the midst of a boom. In the mall in the heart of town one finds shops selling everything from falafels for $1.50 to the same expensive clothes one would find in the better Tel Aviv department stores. A large outdoor swimming pool attracts sun-tanned settlers in string bikinis. (At nearby Bidya indoor plumbing is a luxury.) A tourist hotel and a high-tech industrial park are rising at a noisy construction site on Ariel’s outskirts. Another industrial park on the edge of the city already employs two thousand people. City planners say they are aiming for 100,000 residents who will be housed along 7.5 miles of bulldozed ridges.
Only rows of young olive trees set in brightly colored oil drums keep Ariel from growing even larger. These fields, planted by Arab farmers, ring the Jewish city. Under Jordanian law, which still applies in principle on the West Bank, although not always in practice, if Arab land is cultivated it is proof of Arab ownership and it is therefore not to be expropriated. “Look how they block us,” Ariel’s forty-six-year-old mayor, Ron Nachman, said as he led me on a tour of what he calls Israel’s “city of tomorrow.”
Nachman does not resemble the bearded, machine gun-toting mystics one finds in some of the religious settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. A fourth generation sabra, born near Tel Aviv, he is a clean-cut young promoter with a fast-talking salesman’s manner, who describes Ariel as Israel’s “yuppie” community. He told me he sees himself as representative of white-collar Israelis who began to move to the occupied territories in the early 1980s primarily for economic rather than for religious reasons. They mainly wanted to have apartments or houses that were more spacious and less expensive than the ones they could find in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and they benefited from government-subsidized mortgages and from tax breaks.
About 75,000 Jews now live in the occupied territories, and the so-called yuppies outnumber the intensely religious, ideological settlers affiliated with the right-wing messianic movement, Gush Emunim, by at least four to one. The nonreligious settlers, however, have their own political preferences: for example, about 90 percent of Ariel’s settlers voted for the Likud or for parties to its right in the 1988 Knesset election. Though before the uprising neither the suburban settlers nor members of the Gush Emunim had good relations with the local Arabs, the suburbanites tried to maintain at least the appearance of coexistence. Nachman used to boast about Ariel’s neighborly relations with the Palestinians. He would, he told me, drive to a nearby Arab village to get a shave from an Arab barber. But that was before the intifada—and before Nachman’s friend Abu Bakr was gunned down in front of Bidya’s high school. While I was with him Nachman looked at Bidya from his balcony and said: “Every house will be destroyed if they don’t watch it!”
When I asked him about charges by liberal Knesset members that he is one of the leaders of a settlers’ militia that has attacked Bidya and other Palestinian communities, Nachman did not answer directly. He said that there would be no intifada in the first place if the Israeli left and the US government hadn’t stirred up the Palestinians with talk of self-determination. “The recognition of the PLO by the US is like putting oil on the fire,” Nachman said. “Instead of starting a peace process—it will lead to war!”
Settlers like Nachman see themselves as surrounded by threatening, even apocalyptic, developments: the intifada itself, followed by American talks with the PLO and American pressure on Israel to end the occupation. At the same time, as several settlement leaders told me, they sense that opposition to settlements may be rising in Israel itself. No matter how many times Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir vows that he won’t surrender one inch of “Eretz Yisrael,” many settlers fear he will sell them out. They talk of Menachem Begin’s decision in April 1982 to surrender the Sinai with its five thousand settlers. Many settlers told me they are afraid that Shamir’s idea of limited autonomy for local Palestinians, though obviously unacceptable to the PLO, will lead to a Palestinian state and then to Israel’s destruction.
In an attempt to prevent any softening of the Likud’s position on settlements, settlement leaders have organized protest demonstrations. Last winter, Ron Nachman joined leaders from Gush Emunim in an around-the-clock vigil in front of Shamir’s house to protest the lack of security in the territories. In March, tens of thousands of supporters of the settlements took part in a demonstration in Tel Aviv. “This demonstration is to tell the world that Eretz Yisrael is Jewish,” the prominent Gush Emunim leader Rabbi Moshe Levinger told me as he looked over the vast crowd. “It does not belong to the Palestinian people. In all its history it has belonged to the Jewish people. And because it is our place, we have to build more settlements and bring more Jews to live in Eretz Yisrael. The Arabs don’t understand that our connection to Hebron is no less strong than it is to Tel Aviv. If Diaspora Jews think Hebron is part of the ‘occupied territories,’ they won’t move there. And if the Arabs don’t stop the intifada, they will be transferred [the euphemism in Israel for forced expulsion].”
Some settlement leaders and their allies in the Knesset have openly called for civil insurrection if Israel tries to trade territory for peace with the Arabs. One is Geula Cohen, an outspoken hard-liner who left the Likud in 1979 after the Sinai withdrawal to form her own ultranationalist party, Tehiya. Cohen told me in her Knesset office that despite the accomplishments of the settlement movement—which include creating on the West Bank an elaborate network of roads, electrical grids, and sprawling housing projects—the entire enterprise is in jeopardy. “I’m very nervous,” said Cohen, who was Shamir’s colleague in the Stern Gang during the British Mandate period. “I’m worried that the government is not doing anything meaningful to break the intifada and promote new settlements. It’s not a question of Shamir’s good will, but his will power. He cares about Eretz Yisrael as much as I do. The question is how will he stand up in the face of American pressure? I don’t think the settlements will be uprooted or evacuated, but you can make them die in many other ways. You can cut off their money. The only way to stop a Palestinian state is to fill the territories with Jewish settlements.”
In a recent speech to the Knesset, Cohen warned: “Judea, Samaria, and Gaza are not the Sinai. There will be a [civil] war here” if Israel gives up territory (as it did in 1982 in carrying out the Camp David Accords). Last March, Cohen joined two other ultra right-wing parties, particularly concerned with promoting settlement, Tzomet and Modelet, to call for a no-confidence vote of the government.
“The settlers are driving us crazy,” an official in the prime minister’s office told me shortly before Shamir’s recent trip to Washington. “We are with them, but they are being needlessly noisy and provocative. Their behavior will make Bush think everyone in Israel is a crackpot extremist.” Shamir has from time to time shown himself impatient with the settlers’ demands for unconditional support. At a recent religious ceremony at a West Bank settlement, Shamir was approached by Eliyakim Haetzni, an eloquent but volatile settlement leader from Kiryat Arba who criticized Shamir for his failure to promote new settlements and for failing to crush the intifada. “You go to hell,” said Shamir; he then slammed a wine bottle down on the table and walked away.
Though the settlement movement is now most closely associated with the Likud party, the first settlements were built by the Labor government, soon after the Six-Day War, on the Golan Heights, around East Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley, and in the Gush Etzion bloc near Bethlehem, on the site of Jewish settlements that were overrun by the Jordanian Legion in 1948 with a loss of dozens of Jewish lives. Labor’s policy was to build settlements in the Jordan Valley for security purposes, while avoiding settlements in the occupied areas largely populated by Arabs—these, according to such leaders as Yigal Allon, were to be held as bargaining chips in future peace talks. But as early as 1970, a bitterly divided Labor government allowed a group of Orthodox Jews led by the ultranationalist Orthodox rabbi Moshe Levinger to build Kiryat Arba on a hilltop overlooking Hebron, the site of King David’s first throne, and home to 78,000 Palestinians.
The settlement issue grew more complex in 1974 with the formation of Gush Emunim, a mystical-messianic movement that was based on the teachings of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, then the eighty-year-old head of Yeshiva Mercaz Harav in Jerusalem. The son of Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, founder of modern religious Zionism and the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, he had devoted his life to preserving and expounding his father’s teachings—foremost among them that the Jewish return to Israel and the flowering of the land signify the beginning of the messianic age. Contending that the occupied territories are part of the “holy inheritance” of lands given by God to the Jews as recorded in the Bible, Kook declared that they must be secured and defended at any cost.
Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook believed that it was vital for Jews to retain sovereignty over all the Promised Land; otherwise the Torah’s commandments would be imperfectly fulfilled, delaying the messianic age in which Israel will become a heavenly kingdom of priests and wise men dispensing a higher morality to the rest of the world.
“Gush Emunim relates to the whole of Zionism by being the very soul of Zionism,” Rav Kook told me in an interview in 1977. “God promised He would shine a light on Zion and this is the real root meaning of Zionism. Gush Emunim is facilitating this. Our main purpose, therefore, is to follow the Torah’s commandments in the land of Israel. By doing so, after a time, we will automatically become a light unto the nations. Those who can’t see the light are wicked. Other nations will learn from us and by so doing raise the morality of the world.”
Gush Emunim’s political dogma is often obscured by cabalistic formulas and mystically conceived messianic ideas. Gush members insist that mysticism is a healthy part of Jewish experience. Rabbi Levinger has put it this way:
Zionism is mysticism. Zionism will wither away if you cut it from its mystical messianic roots. Zionism is a movement that does not think in rational terms—in terms of practical politic, international relations, world opinion, demography, social dynamics—but in terms of divine commandments. What matters only is God’s promise to Abraham as recorded in the Book of Genesis.
So the members of Gush Emunim began what it regarded as its holy crusade to settle and build up “Judea and Samaria,” the land of the ancient Hebrews now known as the West Bank. For their dedication and sense of mission, they were compared to the Second Aliya pioneers of the early 1900s, and they captured the imagination of many Israelis. Gush Emunim also won important support from the right wing of the Labor party, from Begin’s Herut party, from the National Religious party—where it began as a faction—and from Bnai Akiva, an Orthodox youth movement. One of its most powerful early supporters was Ariel Sharon.
The first Gush settlement was established by the Labor government in the summer of 1974 at Camp Horon near the Arab village of Beit Nuyba the day after Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister. The settlement, a small religious agricultural cooperative—or moshav—of only fifty residents, was originally a collection of tents, trailers, and prefabricated dwellings.
But most of Gush Emunim’s attempts to settle the West Bank during the Labor government era were stopped by the army. Gush members would arrive in a caravan of trailers in the middle of the night without government permission. When the army came to expel the settlers—which it almost invariably did—the right-wing parties would charge the Labor government with betrayal of Israel and compare it to the British Mandate government before Jewish independence. Either way Gush Emunim seemed to defeat the Labor government.
Immediately upon his election in 1977, Begin went to Elon Moreh, a settlement near Nablus which Gush Emunim had tried and failed seven times to settle extralegally before the Labor government finally gave in. Holding a Torah scroll aloft, Begin vowed he would establish “many more Elon Morehs.”
Begin, the former commander of the Irgun, which had called for a Jewish state on both banks of the River Jordan, was true to his word. Between 1977 and 1984, successive Likud governments invested more than $1 billion in building Jewish settlements—a huge sum for an economically hard-pressed nation that depends on $3 billion in annual aid from the United States. Nearly sixty new settlements were built during this period, and the number of Jewish settlers in predominantly Arab areas of the West Bank rose from a few thousand to more than 38,000.
The government had prohibited individuals from buying land on the West Bank, preferring to confiscate land that had been registered in the name of the Jordanian government. The Israelis also confiscated land that was unregistered or uncultivated as well as expropriated land, for security reasons. Most of the land Israel now controls on the West Bank—at least 80 percent—was acquired in this way. But under Likud Israeli land brokers and their Arab associates went about the territories looking for parcels of land that could be sold to the settlements. The Israeli press published a great many exposes of West Bank land fraud, in which Palestinians signed away their land without being fully aware of what they were doing. Thousands of dunams of land were obtained from Arabs through the services of Arab land brokers like Abu Bakr.
Indeed, a 1983 report by the Israeli state comptroller said that much of the West Bank land bought by Jews had been fraudulently obtained. On August 23, 1985, a Ha’aretz editorial strongly criticized unscrupulous Israeli land brokers for conducting business on the West Bank as if it were “the Wild West.” “The swindlers must be dealt with in a most forceful manner.” On December 1, 1985, Avraham Gindi, a prosperous Israeli building contractor, was arrested for using Arab middlemen to obtain forged Arab land deeds. On December 13, minutes before he was to be charged in a Tel Aviv district courtroom for fraud, Gindi bolted from his guards and attempted to commit suicide by jumping out of the court building’s sixth-story window. Several months later Gindi succeeded in committing suicide.
The corruption spread to the Likud party itself. On April 11 of this year, Mikhael Dekel, currently the prime minister’s adviser on the Jewish settlements, was indicted for using his post as deputy agriculture minister under Ariel Sharon in 1984 to help contractors get licenses to build on the West Bank in return for contributions for Likud’s 1984 Knesset campaign. The indictment alleges that one meeting to solicit bribes took place in Yitzhak Shamir’s office while Shamir was present, although he was not indicted. The New York Times reported on August 20, 1985, that Shamir had ordered the police not to look too deeply into West Bank land fraud cases, saying, according to the Times reporter, that “a certain amount of sleight of hand” was needed to obtain land from the Arabs. “Redeeming land in the land of Israel often necessitated crafty and tricky devices,” Shamir said in a speech at about the same time.
In 1983, Gush Emunim planners working closely with the Begin government decided that in view of the dwindling supply of religious settlers, the only way to “Judaize” the West Bank was to offer huge public subsidies and attractive housing to lure secular Jews from inside the Green Line. The Likud government planned the construction of the new settlements close to Arab population centers, so that even if relatively few Jews moved beyond the Green Line, the concentrations of Jewish settlements around Arab towns and villages would “neutralize” them politically. The Likud’s aim was to build enough settlements inside the territories to form an interest group capable of blocking any hope of territorial compromise. Although today more than 70 percent of the settlers live in secular, suburban settlements like Ariel, Gush Emunim still dominates the regional councils in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which administer government funds and assist the government in carrying out policy, as well as Yesha (“salvation”), the settlers’ official public lobby. More than fifty settlements are members of Amana (“covenant”), Gush Emunim’s office for encouraging settlements, which now uses computerized studies to plan new settlements.
The increase of new settlements slowed down in 1984, when Labor joined Likud in a coalition government. Between 1984 and 1986, the government spent $150 million on the settlements annually, $100 million less than at its peak in 1983. Only eight new settlements were built during the first coalition government, although existing settlements were “thickened” with thousands more people. Shimon Peres, as treasury minister, recently blocked funds for eight new settlements that were agreed upon in the coalition deal between Labor and Likud last December. The start-up costs for a new settlement that went up on a rocky hilltop near Bir Zeit University in March have been paid for by funds raised by the settlers themselves, as well as from the budget of the local regional council.
Despite the settlers’ complaints about budget cutbacks, Israel already has acquired a large foothold in the occupied territories, controlling 55 percent of the land on the West Bank and 33 percent in the Gaza Strip. On a per capita basis, the settlers, according to Meron Benvenisti, use four times more water than the Arabs, who have to get permission from the military to dig new wells. The territories also provide a steady supply of cheap Arab labor and a market for Israeli goods, although, because of the intifada, Israel’s trade surplus with the occupied territories dropped to $56 million in 1988, from $174 million in the previous year.
Though the Israeli government is expected to spend some $400 million on roads, electricity, and other facilities for the settlements this year, some of the settlers have turned to well-to-do Jews in North America for help with their rising costs. For example, the Hebron Fund, a charitable tax-exempt foundation incorporated in New York, raises money for the small Jewish enclave that has been built inside Hebron’s teeming covered Arab marketplace, or casbah. A $360-a-couple benefit dinner last month at a New Jersey country club netted an estimated $50,000. The guests included New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Reuben Mattus, the founder of Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream, who was the guest of honor. New York City Council President Andrew Stein was the dinner’s cochairman (although he didn’t turn up at the dinner itself). Despite strict government restrictions on expanding the Jewish presence in Hebron, several of the settlement leaders told me that settlers have secretly purchased millions of dollars of Arab property there.
It is in the crowded buildings taken over by religious Jews in the Hebron casbah and in the large neighboring settlement of Kiryat Arba that one finds the center of Jewish extremism on the West Bank. In Kiryat Arba Gush Emunim and Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach movement share power on the town council. In 1986, Kahane’s Kach party pushed through a resolution prohibiting the city from hiring Arab workers, but it was declared “null and void” by the Israeli attorney general, who called it “discriminatory” and “racist.” At least four “self-defense” groups have been formed there, including one band of armed vigilantes led by Shmuel Ben Ishai, a Kach party activist who is currently under investigation in ten different criminal cases in Israel. Ben Ishai’s group, which may number as many as a hundred Kach activists, has organized a number of attacks on Arabs in Hebron and in the neighboring Arab villages and refugee camps. “They [the Arabs] are not afraid of the soldiers, but they are afraid of us,” Ben Ishai recently said. “They have experience with us.” This April The Jerusalem Post reported that seven Hebron settlers formed a “vigilante intervention force” that uses German-shepherd attack dogs against Palestinian stone throwers. Dogs “are more effective than shooting,” Aharon Domb, the vigilante leader, told the Post. “Whoever uses dogs won’t have to shoot and kill.”
In recent months, vigilante violence has spread down the slope from Kiryat Arba and across the entire West Bank. In May, for example, settlers from the Gush settlement Ofra raided the Arab village of Bitnin, burning two cars and shattering the windows of six houses, according to Israeli police reports. Residents of Ein Yabrud village said more than one hundred settlers from Ofra burned down a shop, cut down trees, and broke the windows of a village mosque, according to Reuters. Late this April settlers shot a ten-year-old girl in the head and a fourteen-year-old boy during stoning incidents.2
Settler violence against Arabs began long before the intifada. According to a 1983 report by a blue-ribbon commission headed by Israel’s deputy attorney general, Yehudit Karp, Jewish vigilante attacks against West Bank Arabs had become a fact of life during the early 1980s. The Karp commission found that few indictments had been brought against Jewish vigilantes, because right-wing Knesset members intervened to stop police and army investigations. More ominously, settlers also have taken part in several terrorist underground organizations. The most deadly Jewish underground group was formed in 1980 by prominent members of Gush Emunim, who carried out a wave of bombings and shootings, including the June 1980 car bombings of two West Bank Arab mayors; one lost both legs, the other a foot. Members of the Gush underground also plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque in East Jerusalem, in order to clear the site for the rebuilding of the Second Temple, as well as to sabotage the Camp David Accords.3
The thirty-member Gush underground was arrested by Shin Bet in 1984, on the day its members planted bombs in five Arab buses in East Jerusalem. Gush Emunim sympathizers then set up a legal defense fund—primarily with American Jewish donations—that they used to hire prominent Israeli defense lawyers. Rabbi Avi Weiss, the head of the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale, New York, raised more than $100,000 to help pay for the Gush underground’s legal expenses.
Perhaps the most prominent Gush figure arrested in connection with the Gush underground was Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Gush Emunim’s ideological leader and one of the more influential figures in modern Zionist history. It was Levinger, a disciple of the late Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, who established Kiryat Arba and led Gush Emunim’s campaign for settlement. Menachem Livni, one of the underground leaders, told Shin Bet that seven rabbis, including Rabbi Levinger and Rabbi Elizer Waldman, a Knesset member in the Tehiya party, were actively involved in the terrorist underground and had approved the attacks on the two mayors. Levinger and Waldman were released after questioning.
Throughout the intifada, Levinger has complained that the army has not done enough to crush the Arab rebellion. On September 30, he allegedly fired a pistol wildly into a cluster of Arab shops after his car was stoned in the Hebron market. One Palestinian shopkeeper was killed and another wounded. After the shooting, Levinger allegedly overturned vegetable and fruit stalls, cursing the vendors. On April 11, after a five-month investigation, Levinger was indicted for manslaughter and intentionally damaging property. Nearly forty witnesses, including Israeli soldiers who saw the shooting, have been assembled by the prosecution for his trial, which is scheduled to start soon. The settlers have complained that Levinger is being framed by the Israeli left in order to discredit the settlement movement.
The violent attacks by settlers on Arabs, which have taken place frequently during the intifada, have gone largely unpunished. Settlers have shot to death eighteen Arabs since the intifada began, according to figures compiled by Israeli human rights groups, but only one settler, a Chicago native living in the Gush settlement of Shilo, has been convicted of manslaughter, for killing an unarmed Arab shepherd.
Levinger is the third settler to be charged with killing an Arab during the intifada. The other is Pincus Wallerstein, head of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, which has twenty-nine settlements under its auspices. Wallerstein was charged with killing an Arab youth from Beittin. “I was trapped by twenty to thirty Arabs who had stones,” Wallerstein told me in the Knesset dining room, where he spends much of his time lobbying for the settlement movement. “Maybe stones are not guns, but stones are very dangerous. They surrounded my car. Maybe they wanted to kill me. This is a war and we must behave as if we are in a war.”
Wallerstein’s case illustrates the dual system of justice that prevails on the West Bank. While he has been set free on bail by a civil court, Arabs, who are under the jurisdiction of military authorities and military courts, can spend months in jail under the Emergency Regulation Act without being formally charged with a crime. And while the settler from Chicago received a three-year sentence for murdering an Arab, Meron Benvenisti points out in his report The West Bank and Gaza Atlas that Arabs have been given eight- and ten-year terms for throwing petrol bombs at military and civilian vehicles, and they are likely to spend one year in jail for throwing stones.
The Israeli army’s repression of the intifada has by now led to at least 430 deaths of Palestinians, 25,599 injuries, 48 expulsions, 176 demolitions of houses, 6,599 imprisonments (in only 994 cases have the prisoners been tried and convicted), not to mention the innumerable curfews, raids, shutdowns of schools and newspapers, and increased taxes. The US State Department has issued a report documenting a “substantial increase in human rights abuses” by the army. On April 14, the International Red Cross expressed extreme concern about “the increasingly frequent use of firearms and acts of physical violence against defenseless civilians.”4
Twenty-one Israelis have been killed by Palestinians during the intifada, according to The Washington Post, and 1,121 have been injured. The settlers complain that the army is not doing enough to quiet the Arabs and say they are justified in taking the law into their own hands. Several I talked to acknowledged that they deliberately attacked Arabs hoping to provoke a violent response, which would bring in the army. Some settlers also say that the worse they can make life for the Arabs, the easier it will be to drive them across the Jordan River. Haggai Segal, a Gush Emunim settler from Ofra who spent three years in prison for his part in the car-bomb attacks on two West Bank mayors, told me:
You can’t make a big round up and put them on buses, but you must make bad conditions for the Arabs—and if they continue the war [intifada], you must make them leave. I drove by the American consulate in East Jerusalem yesterday and saw a long line of Arabs waiting to get visas. The situation is very hard for them now and it must get harder.
Expelling Israel’s Arabs was hardly ever openly discussed in Israel until the intifada. Kahane may have broken the taboo in the early 1970s, but the intifada gave the concept urgency. Now prominent politicians on the “respectable right,” from Likud to the National Religious party, are recommending “transfer” as a solution to Israel’s “demographic” problem. Rafael Eitan, the hard-line head of the Tzomet party and the army’s chief of staff during the Lebanon war (who once referred to West Bank Arabs as drugged cockroaches in a bottle), told The Jerusalem Post last year that “if war breaks out and they make trouble, then we’ll simply have to deport a million people.”
The sentiment for transfer is strong in Ariel, where even Ron Nachman concedes that the Palestinians’ “stone revolution” has shattered the “good life” publicized in the city’s glossy brochures and promotional films. Besieged by the intifada, and increasingly isolated from their friends and families in Tel Aviv who are afraid to visit them, many residents I spoke to fear that Israel will eventually abandon them in a peace accord—unless the intifada is soon crushed.
As a result of these fears, Ariel has set up a well-armed militia linked to groups operating in five nearby settlements. Some Israelis, such as the Knesset member Dede Zucker, have charged that an embryonic, right-wing army is taking shape that could violently challenge the government if it tried to negotiate the fate of the occupied territories.
The militias, which carry Israeli army weapons, have not been punished for illegal attacks because West Bank army commanders seek “quiet with the settlers at any price,” says Zucker, who has sent written complaints about their behavior to the attorney general’s office recommending prosecution. Zucker told me that while under Israeli law it is legal for settlers to carry weapons and open fire if their lives are in danger, it is illegal for Israeli civilians to stage punitive raids against Arab villages, no matter what the provocation. As far as stopping the militias, Zucker says, “the army can’t cope with the intifada; it can hardly cope with the settlers.”
In one of several attacks, Ariel’s militia swarmed into Bidya last February, firing rifles and stoning Arab cars after a Jew from the neighboring settlement of Alfei Menashe was found burned to death in his van on a West Bank highway. Army investigators later determined that the settler was a victim of a gas-line leak that had ignited. The settlers forced one Arab vehicle carrying two men and a pregnant woman off the road. Hauling the men from the car, the settlers proceeded to beat them savagely. One settler told me such attacks wouldn’t be necessary if the army wasn’t so easy on the Arabs. “I can’t say what we’d do if someone from Ariel was killed by an Arab,” said Yezhkel Amber, one of the founders of Ariel’s militia.
Two of the founders of the militia, called Kullanu (“all of us”), are Samuel Rafaeli, a thirty-nine-year-old electronics engineer, and Yezhkel Amber, a forty-two-year-old engineer who left Iraq in 1950 as a child. They agreed to talk to me, along with Dina Shalit, the assistant to Ariel’s mayor, about the frustrations that led them to create the militia and what they would do if the government evacuated the territories.
Rafaeli: The Arabs behave like they are already in their own country. It’s not just the rocks and petrol bombs. For example, they throw trash all over the road.
Amber: They don’t care about traffic rules anymore. They’ve started driving their cars with six, seven, eight people in the front seat.
Friedman: Who cares?
Shalit: We care. It’s not their country.
Amber: They are not following the rules.
Rafaeli: It’s an act of rebellion. Oncé you start letting them get away with this stuff—once you start retreating—you never stop…. Everyone knows that most of the people in Bidya are peaceful. There is only a small gang from the Hammas and a few Arabs from the PLO that are forcing the others to throw stones. We are fighting gangs that are hiding behind women and children. We know who the instigators are. Exile them. Throw out the troublemakers from every village on the West Bank. Just round them up and throw them away. You don’t have to kill them. Just exile them and their families and blow up their houses. It will be quiet again—in two weeks.
Friedman: What would you do if the government withdrew from the West Bank?
Rafaeli: On a clear day, after a rain, I can see the coastline from my home. I can’t believe the Israeli government will give up this place. It would be the end of Israel. Anyway, it never belonged to the Arabs in the first place.
Shalit: I would take my kids to the airport and return to Canada. I would never stay in this country because I would feel betrayed. I came to Ariel with the encouragement of the government—to a legal settlement—with a government mortgage. If the government of Israel can do that to me in Ariel, they can do that to me wherever I move in Israel.
Amber: If they give Ariel back, Tel Aviv will be in danger. That’s how I see it. I have an obligation to my family. I cannot let them live on the coastline under Arab guns. I would leave Israel too.
As I traveled through the occupied territories talking to settlers, I was struck by their insistence that they are the weaker party in the conflict—the Palestinians, they say, have on their side the Israeli left, most of the Hebrew and foreign press, the superpowers, and world public opinion, while they are being threatened by the showers of stones thrown at their cars. Their civil rights are being violated, they say, and in my talks with dozens of settlers I found that with very few exceptions they exhibited either complete indifference to the brutality employed by the army in combating the intifada—or complete denial of it.
“The Arabs are not being persecuted,” said Rabbi Meyer Berglas, a Canadianborn founder of the Neve Aliza settlement and dean of the Israel Institute of Technology for Women in Jerusalem. “They are not being occupied in the sense that anything evil or bad is happening to them. There is nothing whatever that is happening that is immoral. We are not in any way denying Arab rights. We are not in any way interfering with their lives. We are not in any way persecuting them [or] hurting them.” On the contrary, the rabbi says, the intifada is a PLO-led war aimed at Israel’s destruction—and the overriding Jewish moral imperative is to respond in self-defense: “There’s a basic moral value, which I think is even a universal value; that if someone is coming to threaten your life you have a right to defend yourself. You have an obligation to defend yourself. According to Hebrew law, it is forbidden to commit suicide.”
I heard repeated comparisons between Palestinian stone throwers and black rioters in America. “Why don’t you withdraw from Liberty City in Miami?” said Harold, a mechanic from Queens who lives in Neve Aliza. “Why don’t you let them run wild and break into stores?”
Jacob Narodetsky, a mechanical engineer at Israel Aircraft Industry who moved to Israel from the Ukraine fifteen years ago and who founded Bet Areye, the first Likud settlement on the West Bank, in 1980, told me that granting West Bank Arabs political rights would ultimately harm them:
The black revolt against European rule in Africa brought tragedy to the blacks. They went back in history one hundred years. The same thing would happen to the Arabs here if we gave them self-rule. It’s a mistake to give people who are not politically mature the tools of democracy so they can misuse them.
Most settlers have had almost no direct contact with the Arabs who live near them on the West Bank. Yet this doesn’t stop them from talking about the Arab psyche. Libby Reichman, a former New Yorker with a master of social work degree from Columbia University who lives in Efrat, a well-to-do Orthodox but not Gush Emunim settlement near Bethlehem, told me that West Bank Arabs are much better off than Arabs elsewhere. She also said that Arabs are “inherently” brutal, that most Arabs men are incapable of expressing love to their children, and that most Arabs don’t care for books and education. But she told me she has never visited an Arab village in Israel or the West Bank—let alone had a conversation with a college-educated Palestinian. Virtually her only encounters with West Bank Arabs were in talking occasionally to Efrat’s maintenance workers and her household help.
Libby’s brother, a writer of children’s books, and her sister also live in West Bank settlements. Her mother, Hadassah Marcus, is a leader of Gush Emunim in America, who recently sued the Jewish National Fund in a New York court because it has refused to allocate its funds across the Green Line.
Libby, who told me she had twice been stoned while driving past Dehaysa refugee camp with her children, said:
The intifada could have been destroyed if the army went in and killed everybody. It would have ended a long time ago. But that is not the Jewish way. The reason that the intifada stays in the headlines and the reason it goes on day after day is because Israel doesn’t respond like most countries in the world would in a similar situation…. What hurts me, and is lost on the press, is that the reason the intifada goes on is because there has been such a gentle response….
If the PLO let the Arabs live in peace and stopped stirring them up with the idea that this is their country, I think they could…really enjoy being part of this country. I lived in America as a minority, and I was very happy. Christmas was going on outside and it wasn’t my holiday—but that was OK. I think that a minority in a country can be happy.
Efrat has a reputation in the American press as a liberal Orthodox Jewish settlement, perhaps because its spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, formerly of the prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue on the west side of Manhattan, is soothingly conciliatory in manner. Nevertheless, of the 497 votes cast in Efrat in the last national election, the largest number, 137, went to the pro-Gush Emunim National Religious party, followed by 103 for Likud, 82 for Tehiya, and 42 for Moledet—the party that favors transfer of Arabs to Jordan. Seven votes were cast for Labor.
One of the most extreme views toward Arabs was expressed to me by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a Parisian-born Jew with a wispy beard who is one of Gush Emunim’s most revered ideologues. Aviner’s goal is to turn Jerusalem into an exclusively Jewish domain as a prelude to the messianic age and the redemption of mankind. He believes that the vehicle for redemption will be Ateret Cohanim, a yeshiva situated inside the Muslim quarter of East Jerusalem’s old walled city. With funds donated by American Jews and Christian evangelicals, the yeshiva is purchasing tens of millions of dollars worth of Arab buildings near the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount in preparation for rebuilding the Second Temple and for the coming of the Messiah. In this messianic vision, the Muslim holy sites would be destroyed.
When Ariel Sharon moved into a renovated apartment purchased by Ateret Cohanim in Jerusalem last year, riots broke out in the Arab neighborhood, which had been relatively quiet. Sharon had an enormous menorah placed on his roof and a huge Israeli flag is draped from the side of the building. It now costs some $156,000 annually to provide security for the general for the few nights a month he spends in the apartment. Aviner told me that Sharon moved into the apartment not to be provocative, but to show Israelis that the “so-called” Muslim quarter is safe for Jews. “The Arabs are squatters,” said Aviner, whose students study the ancient texts so that they can become priests in the Third Temple.
I don’t know who gave them authorization to live on Jewish land. All mankind knows this is our land. Most Arabs came here recently. You perhaps read the book From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters?5 … And even if some Arabs have been here for two thousand years, is there a statute of limitations that gives a thief the right to his plunder?
Despite settlers’ claims that God has given Judea and Samaria to the Jewish people forever, events in the occupied territories during the seventeen months of the intifada have apparently encouraged many Israelis to reconsider the wisdom of the settlement movement. A recent survey for The New York Times by an Israeli pollster, Hanoch Smith, indicates that 54 percent of the Israeli public is willing to give up some territory in a peace settlement. In the same poll, 44 percent said they thought a Palestinian state in part or all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was inevitable during the next ten to twenty years.6
Even Israel’s military and intelligence services have conceded that force cannot crush the intifada. “There is no such thing as eradicating the intifada,” General Dan Shomron, the chief of staff, said in February, “because in its essence it expresses the struggle of nationalism.”
But if a future Israeli government were to agree to withdraw from the territories, it would be faced with the problem of what to do with the settlers and their extensive enterprise. It is hard to estimate how many of the 75,000 settlers could be persuaded to move back across the Green Line. Many but by no means all of the secular suburbanites would no doubt gladly take highly inflated payments to move, as was the case with the settlers who were forced to leave Yamit in the Sinai as part of the Camp David Accords.
Meanwhile, settlement leaders claim that more Jews actually have moved into the territories since the start of the intifada than have left. Yisrael Medad, a Gush leader in Shilo and Geula Cohen’s Knesset aide, told me that 1,700 families have moved into settlements in the past seventeen months. In Shilo, he said, there have been twenty-four requests for houses since last summer, but the settlement could only accept five families because of a housing shortage. “When I see the settlements—with all the infrastructure and community facilities and planning for the future—all the talk about territorial compromise is an illusion,” Likud cabinet minister David Levy has said.
Levy may sound unduly melodramatic, but prominent leaders from Gush Emunim and from the secular settlements have publicly threatened to sabotage any peace agreement that ended in territorial compromise. The militant secular settlement leader Eliyakim Haetzni raises the specter of civil war in his book The Shock of Withdrawal from the Land of Israel, in which he argues that Jews loyal to “Greater Israel” have the right to overthrow the state if it betrays the dream of Zionism by relinquishing any part of the occupied territories to the Arabs. In 1985, Haetzni succeeded in having the settlers’ lobbying group, Yesha, pass a resolution telling Prime Minister Peres not to pursue the Jordanian option: “We warn any regime in Israel which implements such proposals that we will relate to it as an illegal regime as General de Gaulle treated the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain, which betrayed the French people.” A few days before, an editorial in Alef Yud, a settlement newspaper, vowed that the settlers would take up arms against the Israeli government if it tried to trade territory for peace with the Arabs. It threatened that there would be “the most horrible scene,…mutiny in the army, an armed uprising in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and finally, Jew fighting Jew.”
Already, a Jewish terrorist underground has begun to attack Israeli Jews who have advocated negotiating with the PLO. They are called the Sicarrim, after a sect of Jewish assassins who murdered Romans and “Hellenist” Jews during the Second Temple period. In calls to Israeli news organizations, people claiming to speak for the Sicarrim have said they are members of Rabbi Kahane’s Kach movement, which has strong support in Kiryat Arba and several other settlements. The Sicarrim have claimed credit for firebombing the apartments of a number of prominent left-wing figures, including Yair Tzaban, leader of the left-wing Mapam party, and Dan Margolit, a television journalist.
Whatever the eventual possibilities for civil resistance, the settlement movement, thanks to the Likud, was able to erase the 1967 border long before the intifada began. The settlements—especially the suburban developments that straddle the Green Line—have become more and more integrated with Israel. The former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, told me that in spite of the Arab uprising, he predicts that new settlements will continue to be built. “There is no hope for a solution” based along the lines of a territorial compromise, he said. “The conflict is a way of life. It’s an endemic situation…. Israel will become a binational entity without any political or constitutional arrangement. One society [Israel] is going to rule the other society by coercion.”
Still, some of the settlers and their nervous right-wing allies in the Knesset repeatedly told me that unless another 100,000 Jews join them in the territories and help change the demographic balance, the future of the settlements will continue to be precarious. “Everything in politics is reversible,” said Geula Cohen.
Whether Cohen or Benvenisti is right, one thing seems certain: any movement toward peace that seems to go against the interests of the settlers will lead to even greater violence. Current proposals for elections on the West Bank, for example, recall the crippling attacks by Gush Emunim settlers on two of the pro-PLO mayors elected in 1976. “I think the settlers will do whatever they can to destroy a peace process,” Professor Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on Israeli extremist groups at Hebrew University, told me. But because Halachic injunctions make it difficult for Jews to justify killing fellow Jews, Sprinzak believes that the religious settlers would hesitate to take up arms against Israeli soldiers sent to oust them. Such injunctions, of course, “do not apply to Arabs,” he pointed out. Sprinzak predicts that violence by settlers against Arabs may spiral out of control in coming months, and that this could cause some Palestinians to trade their stones for guns, leading in turn to more brutal repression.
“The ultimate settler provocation would be blowing up the Dome of the Rock Mosque,” Sprinzak said. In view of the intensity of feeling prevalent on the extreme religious right, he added, the threat of a peace settlement that could destroy their hopes of establishing “Greater Israel” makes it altogether possible that the settlers might attempt to blow up the mosque. “When you try to think of one single act that could torpedo a peace process—and one that would blow apart the Arab world—it’s the bombing of the mosque.”
—May 18, 1989
June 15, 1989
According to an Al Fajr poll taken in 1986, 93.5 percent of the respondents said the “PLO is the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Seventy-one percent of the respondents preferred Arafat as their leader, and 78.4 percent agreed with the statement: “Acts of violence are justified in the pursuit of the Palestinian cause.” ↩
See Foreign Report, published by The Economist Publications, London (May 4, 1989). ↩
There have been at least five attempts by Jewish extremist groups to blow up the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa Mosque, the third holiest site in all of Islam and the spot where the Jewish temples of Solomon and Herod once stood. ↩
The figures cited were supplied by the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press on May 15. ↩
Peters’s book, which was heavily criticized for historical errors, argued that most Palestinian Arabs are late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century immigrants to Palestine, who were attracted by the economic opportunities offered by the Zionist enterprise. ↩
April 2, 1989. A poll published in Ha’aretz on April 27, 1989, shows that 55 percent of the Israelis questioned want the army to use more force to end the uprising. ↩