Background / The 3Rd Intifada: Settlers Take on Their Own Army

In a disconcerting dress rehearsal for the prime minister's withdrawal plan, soldiers who had been confronting Arabs for years in the Second Intifada have found themselves under rock barrage, curses and fists in a new uprising conducted by Jews.

For IDF troops, it has the earmarks of a new Intifada, a second front.

-- Radical youths hurl rocks, metal objects and fists at soldiers, swarm onto their backs and spit in their faces.

-- The protesters, many of them young women and children, invoke Scripture in vowing to lay down their lives in defense of sites they hold sacred.

-- Denouncing soldiers as Nazis, the protesters demand the immediate withdrawal of all Israeli troops and security forces from the area.

-- An IDF paratrooper, believing to have seen one of the demonstrators draw a handgun, fires a warning shot into the air.

-- From the pulpit, bearded sages urge escalation in active resistance to Israeli governmental and military policies.

-- The aging veteran leaders of the movement wring their hands, saying he youths are now beyond their control, and holding Israel's leaders squarely responsible for all bloodshed that may ensue.

-- A growing number of soldiers, reservists, and high schoolers on the verge of conscription, sign petitions pledging to refuse orders concerning service in the territories.

This week, in a disconcerting dress rehearsal for the prime minister's initiative for dismantling settlements in the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank, soldiers who had been confronting Arabs for years in the Second Intifada found themselves under rock barrage in a new uprising conducted by Jews.

The troops were there to back up police dismantling an outpost, one of many in the West Bank with as many names as it has buildings. The forces were there to take down two caravans in Shalhevet, also called Givat Lehava.

If the confrontation resembled in some respects the First Intifada, which lasted in fits and spurts from 1987 to 1993, it also threatened to take on something of the violence and deadly gun battles of the second.

"In the next evacuation, we will see blood," a senior IDF officer told Israel Channel One television after the clashes in the cold mud of Shalhevet, a short dash from the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, a base and effective training camp for radical resistance to disengagement.

Another senior officer denounced a petition drive for refusal to obey orders as "clearly a crime of incitement to rebellion - and so far nothing has been done [to counter-act it].

Protesters, for their part, noted that only the army had thus far opened fire.

To be sure, the settlers' rage and despair had objective roots. Owing to the West Bank fence and other factors, attacks on Israel proper have declined sharply, but lethal mortar and Kassam rocket attacks on settlements have multiplied.

At the same time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has fended off with at-times questionable tools of power the best efforts of the right to scuttle the disengagement in the government's legislative, executive and judicial branches.

In the settlers' view, they are but holding the line against Sharon, who they maintain is conducting a full-out rebellion against bedrock Israeli values and democracy.

Pinchas Wallerstein, among the more strident of establishment settler officials, said Wednesday that the confrontation at Shalhevet had been engineered by Sharon himself, in order to cast the settlers in a poor light.

"They have marked us as an enemy, as air, as dust, and dialogue with us is conducted on the hills of Yitzhar, in a pre-planned provocation."

"When the army arrived, the residents of Yitzhar told them that they were prepared to remove the two structures themselves," Wallerstein said.

In a reference to Sharon's Negev farm, Wallerstein added "However, someone whom lives on the Sycamore Ranch was prepared to create these confrontations."

The civil war to come

For decades, religious youth expended enormous efforts in showing their mettle as soldiers and commanders. In recent years they have taken leading roles in many units.

But the disengagement has suddenly posed crushing dilemmas for religious soldiers, with many weighing the option of refusing orders and actively participating in resistance to evacuation.

On Tuesday, Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter said that collapse of the current state of relative restraint could be only a matter of time.

Speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a day after the Shalhevet scuffling, Dichter said extremists were planning to fabricate a pretext that would grant them license to open fire on troops.

Dichter said the radicals, whom he said numbered in the dozens, planned to plant reports that the army was positioning sharpshooters to fire on settlers during the Gaza pullout, the potential causus belli for a brushfire civil war.

On Wednesday, Sharon, once the commander of the paratroop unit that took part in the Shalhevet incident - and later the darling of the settlers for his unstinting leadership of their cause - was furious as he spoke to a gathering of some of the soldiers involved in the removal of the caravans this week.

"I want to say to those who incite, to those who curse, to those who insult: Leave the IDF alone," Sharon said. "If you want to protest, protest against me; if you want to insult, insult me. But leave the politics in the political arena and leave the IDF and its soldiers out of it."

Sharon said that opponents of the pull-out "attempt to attack people or convoys at the time of the evacuation, the IDF's reaction will be severe in the extreme."