What if Israeli Forces Treated West Bank Settlers Like Arabs?

A black day for the settlement movement, as journalist asks settler official, if settlers are even losing Netanyahu as a supporter.

Around here, you ignore omens only at your peril.

The settlement movement knows how the omens have been running for it today. All black. All unexpected.

Settler Havat Gilad Milrod 28.2.11
Moti Milrod

Imagine a sunny day in winter, on which someone brilliant, compassionate, articulate, truly peace-minded, and actually popular, announces candidacy for the head of - of all things -  Israel's Labor Party.

Unheard of. Absurd. But true. The name is Shelly Yachimovich.

And try to wrap the head around Benjamin Netanyahu, quoted by sources as telling his Likud Knesset members, later the same day, "The whole world is uniting against us over the issue of construction in settlements."

And while we're trying to assimilate the unanticipated, try this on for size: What might be the reaction among settlers if Israeli forces in the West Bank suddenly began treating them as if they were Palestinians?

Turns out, the answer is fury. 

"We are outraged over this deranged, deranged use of weapons against civilians," said settler leader Gershon Messika, chairman of the Samaria Regional Council, the administrative umbrella of northern West Bank settlements. "Where can you find even one democratic country where they fire on people just shouting at police?"

What sparked Messika's astonishment Monday was a pre-dawn operation in which bulldozers of the Civil Administration, the IDF's occupation arm, broke into the Havat Gilad outpost and demolished an illegal caravan home and a tent on the contentious site. Two other homes under construction were also razed, settlers said.

Fifteen people at the site were wounded in clashes, when police opened fire with riot-control ordnance. Eight settlers were arrested, allegedly in possession of knives and a saw.

"I've never seen police firing on innocent bystanders and on women," Messica told Army Radio. "I've never seen things like this - maybe only with Gadhafi in Libya, or in Bil'in. But (firing on)  children, Jews..."

He said police had used rubber bullets tipped with glass. Police sources said paint cartridges had been fired. One soldier, a religious member of a the IDF's Kfir brigade, which carries out much of the military work of occupation, took to the television news to announce that he had gone AWOL in protest. 

"This was unprecedented and disproportionate use of means to disburse demonstrations," outpost spokesman Yehuda Shimon was quoted as saying of the police action. "There was massive rubber bullet, percussion grenade and tear gas grenade fire," Shimon said. "The residents here are enraged. We're considering what to do next."

The settlers' Yesha Council has reportedly filed a complaint alleging police brutality. Wrappers from the police ammunition found at the site warned that close-range fire could be fatal, Messica said.

Havat Gilad, a landmark of the Jewish Wild West Bank, has long been a lodestone for the devout- cum-Easy Rider radicals among settlement youth, who view it as a privately owned ranch. Israeli authorities have ruled it an illegal outpost, more than once expelling the residents, who soon returned.

As is often the case with settlement official Messica, the observation citing Bil'in and Gadhafi was unintentionally revealing. Bil'in, a Palestinian village west of Ramallah, has been the site of weekly protests against Israel's adjacent West Bank barrier for the past six years. Every Friday afternoon, Palestinians and supporters from Israel and abroad, march to the fence, which Israel's Supreme Court has ruled was wrongfully built on the villagers' land (the Defense Ministry has yet to comply with an order to move the barrier).

Typically, clashes erupt, in which troops fire tear gas and rubber-clad steel bullets, at times causing serious and even lethal injury, while Palestinian youths throw rocks and other objects at them.

In the area of Havat Gilad, meanwhile, the army and police were said to be on alert for possible "price tag" attacks on Palestinians in the area, a form of third-party retaliation practiced by radical settlers in response to official Israeli curbs on their activities.

Given the Lewis Carroll reality of Israeli and settler politics, there may, in fact, be a connection between the omen of Shelly Yachimovich's candidacy and a renewed effort by Defense Minister - and self-deposed former Labor chairman - Ehud Barak, to crack down on radical settlers.

And maybe even try for peace with Syria.

For the settlers, perhaps the unkindest cut came late in the day, when an an interviewer quoted Netanyahu as having said that the only country not uniting against Israel over settlement construction was "one country in the Pacific Ocean," an apparent reference to Micronesia. 

"Are you even losing Netanyahu?" Messika was asked.

Taken aback, Messica's response was instructive, if not helpful to his cause. "First of all," he said, "Netanyahu is losing us." 

Stay tuned.