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"One thing, at least, is emphatically different this time from all the previous rounds," said an Israel Defense Forces officer intimately who has been involved with the situation in the West Bank for over a decade.

"The political echelon has finally stopped winking. This is the first time we're receiving clear, detailed instructions on how to deal with building in the settlements," he said. "No one is trying to cut corners - instructions were given and we're operating according to them."

If he is right, the inevitable consequence will be a more heated, potentially violent conflict between security services and settlers. Opponents of the freeze have an interest in inflaming tempers to move a large number of protesters to join a demonstration planned for two days from now. They also need media noise - the more students of religious girls' seminaries dragged on the ground by masked police officers the better.

The distribution of freeze orders in the Gav-Havar outposts, which draw large numbers of ideologically heated settlers, is likely to meet violent resistance. There is also the potential "price tag" policy - of bringing violence and destruction upon nearby Palestinian villages.

Yesterday a house and vehicle went up in flames near Nablus. The army fears such acts will only grow more serious in the days to come. Shin Bet security service estimates point to a large segment of the so-called hilltop youth supporting this kind of violence.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilad, who yesterday handed the position of coordinator of government activities in the territories to Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, told participants at a conference marking the handover that the Civil Administration now stands before "an unprecedented [law] enforcement challenge."

Even the operational headquarters of the army's combat brigades are preparing an operation to implement the freeze; the Civil Administration is likely to lead the confrontation, while under police security. The army will soon have to increase its involvement, too. A broader distribution of orders - particularly the confiscation of goods and demolition of homes built in violation of the freeze - will meet rising opposition, demanding more bodies on the ground and troops potentially refusing to obey orders.

Meanwhile, the army and police are keeping a low profile. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi left this morning for the Far East, and other top brass are not talking to the media about the goings-on in the West Bank.

Four phenomena

The past week's events represented some interesting phenomena:

1. The army is taking a tougher tone. Last week new GOC Central Command Avi Mizrahi visited the pre-army preparatory program in the settlement of Eli. Eli is the mother of prep programs, not a hotbed of insubordination. Many a battalion and company commander are graduates, of whom the religious Zionist community is justly proud. While there, officers took a tough line against rabbis exhorting students to insubordination - no small thing in a place like Eli.

2. U.S. President Barack Obama has united the settlers. At the moment, the struggle against the freeze is being waged on both sides of the separation fence. Beit Aryeh, minutes from the Green Line, is taking a lead among the hardliners. America's demand for a comprehensive freeze has created, for the first time in a while, common ground between Beit Aryeh, Yitzhar and Migron. Settlers of all stripes have signed the High Court petition against the freeze.

3. Foundations have been laid. The past few months, in which the government delayed responding to pressure from Washington, gave the settlers time to organize. Because the date for the freeze was set in late November, great efforts were made to lay hundreds of housing units as facts on the ground. The missions seem to have worked - building continues in many such settlements, viewed as legitimate by the government and exempted from the freeze.

4. How long will the drought last? The recurring complaint last week, heard among regional council heads across the West Bank, was that the freeze was halting plans about to be carried out, plans supposedly already authorized. It's a surprising claim, as for years the settlers have complained of being "dried out" by the government, which they claimed wouldn't allow them to so much as enclose their balconies. If indeed all of the recent administrations, from Sharon to Olmert, "dried them out," then when exactly did these construction projects Netanyahu is trying to undermine actually spring up?