The revolt of Israel's center

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 14-Jul-05 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli soldiers put barbed wire around Gush Katif area near Kissufim crossing, just outside the Gush Katif settlement bloc July 14, 2005.
WASHINGTON Gush Katif, the Israeli settlement bloc in the heart of the Gaza Strip, is an unusual place - a bizarre combination of "Fiddler on the Roof" and Club Med, barbed wire and dune buggies, surfers and settlers, all surrounded by more than a million Palestinians. In the last year, though, the resurgent Israeli center, the most important political force in the Arab-Israeli conflict today, concluded that this Jewish outpost was a bridge too far, and the Israeli Army has been ordered to uproot its settlers as part of a general withdrawal from Gaza.

What is playing out in Israel today is a huge drama in which this resurgent Israeli center, having awakened to just what a danger the extremist settlers pose for Israel's future, is finally confronting them. And the settlers, like long-indulged children who are finally being spanked, are becoming unhinged. This is a dangerous time, because the settlers, who do not really respect the authority of the Israeli state, will try anything.

When I was in Israel two weeks ago, a group of teenage settlers, inspired by a witches' brew of Jewish fascism and messianism, took over an abandoned Arab home next to Gush Katif and scrawled on the side in Hebrew: "Muhammad Is a Pig." When the Palestinians next door saw it, they began stoning the house. Some settler boys got hold of a Palestinian teenager and started pounding him with rocks, an act the Israeli Army described as an attempted "lynching." The boy was saved by an Israeli soldier and a journalist who dragged him behind a wall.

Why did they write "Muhammad Is a Pig?" The explanation starts with the re-emergence of this Israeli center. The Israeli left was blown apart by Yasser Arafat's rejection of the peace deal at Camp David. The Israeli right was blown apart by the last four years of Palestinian uprisings, which made it clear that Israel could not indefinitely occupy the West Bank and Gaza without losing its Jewish majority and democratic character. The collapse of the Israeli left and right has created the New Israeli Center.

The New Israeli Center wants to simply disengage from as many Palestinians as possible, keep only those Jewish settlements adjacent to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and wait for a new Palestinian leadership to emerge.

But the New Israeli Center needed a leader who had the legitimacy and toughness to pull this off. It turned out to be Ariel Sharon, the man who led the settlement movement in the first place but has now concluded that Israel must get rid of Gaza to retain its Jewish character. Sharon's transformation has shocked the settlers, and many have vowed to disobey.

"The settlers believe that authority only resides in the Land of Israel, not the State of Israel," said Moshe Halbertal, a philosopher at the Hartman Institute and the Hebrew University. "They insist that the state is not sovereign when it comes to the Land of Israel. This struggle is the Land of Israel versus the State of Israel" - and the state is winning.

That is why those settler kids wrote "Muhammad Is a Pig" on that Arab home. They want to trigger a religious war between Muslims and Jews - a war that would force all Israelis to stand with the settlers and abort the evacuation. So far, it has not worked. The army immediately erased "Muhammad Is a Pig," and later arrested the boys who led the stoning.

"This Gaza withdrawal is the revolt of the Israeli majority against being taken hostage any longer by the settler minority," said the Israeli writer Ari Shavit. "And that is why these settlers go berserk - because they have gotten so used to controlling our destiny, no matter who was in power. Now, for the first time, there is a clear message: 'Enough is enough."'

In this sense, Shavit added, there is something heroic about what the Israeli center is doing: "It is disengaging from Gaza and from a minority - without even knowing where exactly it is going next." This assertion by the vital center in Israeli society is a sign of "something really healthy," Shavit concluded, "but it is a real battle," and the forces of moderation need "a lot of support from the outside world."

Indeed, the struggle in Israel today is a microcosm of what needs to happen in this whole region.

Sharon described the settler youths who wrote "Muhammad Is a Pig" as "extremist gangs who are trying to terrorize Israeli society and tear it to pieces through violence against Jews and Arabs, and offending Muslims and violating their symbols by thuggery and disobedience."

It's time the Arab-Muslim world talked to its Islamo-fascists, suicide "martyrs" and hate-spewing preachers the same way.