Editor’s Notes: Pinhas lit ‘the spark of history’

By David Horovitz December 24, 2004

The army is split, there will be violence, and, according to pioneering settler ideologue Israel Harel, disengagement may well be thwarted

On Christmas precisely 25 years ago, Israel Harel, then in his mid-30s, was making his way from his home settlement of Ofra, north of Jerusalem, to Rosh Tzurim, in the Etzion Bloc south of the capital. His purpose: to preside over the founding conference of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

There were no bypass roads in those pre-Oslo days, and his route took him straight through Bethlehem, or would have done but for the Christmas festivities. Bethlehem was closed, he was told by the troops who stopped him on the northern outskirts. He would have to turn back.

But, as a former paratrooper who’d participated in the liberation of the Old City in 1967 and crossed the Suez Canal with Ariel Sharon in 1973, Harel had plenty of strings to pull, and got himself waved through – with a guarantee that the soldiers would also defer to other attendees heading to the same 80-strong landmark gathering.

I’ve heard people say that the opponents of Sharon’s disengagement plan effectively ‘lost the rest of Israel’ in the past three days with the now aborted ‘Orange Star’ campaign – the co-option of a Holocaust image to imply an obscene parallel between the planned removal of the Gaza settlers and the Nazis’ mass murder of European Jews.

Harel, much as he empathizes with the plight of Gush Katif, shares the horrified rejection of such ‘terrible’ gimmickry. ‘Madness,’ he calls it.

But far from considering this to be the week, consequently, in which disengagement essentially triumphed, he believes the reverse. In the 48 hours before the Orange Star made its lamentable entrance, he argues, Pinhas Wallerstein’s written call for mass civil disobedience ‘lit the spark of history’ – a spark that, if kept burning, will see the government rendered impotent by the sheer scale of resistance.

HAREL SERVED as secretary-general of the council for its first 15 years. It was the period in which the settlement enterprise burgeoned from fewer than 20 locales to almost 140. In presiding over that expansion, and since, he gained a reputation for pragmatism. But it’s one he insists applies to the movement as a whole.

Talking on Wednesday, this passionate, droopy-eyed settler pioneer asserts that ‘we wouldn’t have attained what we have attained if we weren’t pragmatic, if we hadn’t known how to work with Labor politicians. We took them to the limits,’ he allows. ‘But where we were stopped, we stopped.’

Gush Katif, he points out, ‘is solely a Labor creation. There was a view, especially held by Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan, that we should build between north and south Gaza, so they [the Palestinians] couldn’t be a unified, uncontrollable group.’

The pioneers were mainly from large Sephardi families in Negev moshavim, whose ideology was agriculture. ‘At first, they really felt the council was too ideological for them,’ he recalls. ‘But with time, and as things got harder, they got more ideological.’

And the real firming of that ideology came after the Sinai withdrawal, ‘when Orthodox Israelis who had moved to Sinai in 1979 and 1980 to try and prevent that evacuation came to Gaza,’ and made their influence felt.
Even today, Harel argues at one point, the pioneering spirit among Gaza settlers is such that, had Sharon come to Netzarim and Kfar Darom, and persuasively explained to residents why their presence was no longer beneficial and shown them where they were truly needed now, ‘they’d have cried, but they’d have packed up.’

But then again, Harel later acknowledges, Sharon could never have done that – because of his personality, and because there is, in Harel’s mindset, no conceivable persuasive argument.

First, the deficient personality. Harel has a long and delicate relationship with the prime minister, and so chooses his words with particular care. They are all the more damning for that.

‘Sharon always has to prove his strength… Wisdom is to win without giving those you overcome the sense that they’ve lost. The prime minister, the leader of the people, shouldn’t have given his opponents, the Jews, the sense that he’s about to knock them out.’

Second, the absent argument: ‘Two months before he unveiled disengagement, Sharon declared Netzarim to be as important as Tel Aviv. By which he meant that leaving Netzarim was as dangerous as leaving Tel Aviv – in terms of the impact it would have on the mindset of the enemy. The chief of General Staff said the same thing – not in terms of ideological Zionism, but in terms of the security conception. And they were right.’

But now Sharon, in Harel’s conception, has ‘capitulated to the attacks. Gush Katif hasn’t. They’ve absorbed 6,000 mortar shells and hundreds of Kassams and lost dozens of dead – but they’ve held firm. They see a weak country and a weak prime minister, and they feel that if they don’t hold firm, the whole country will fall. The terrorists will know they have won. That’s the raison d’etre of all the opposition… The PA Web sites are already celebrating victory.’

Sharon’s previous position of ‘Netzarim as important as Tel Aviv’ was justified and real, Harel insists. ‘He won the elections on it. And laughed at [Labor’s leader Amram] Mitzna for saying the opposite. And then he became Mitzna.’

And now, if he had something real to say to justify disengagement, ‘he would have come and said it, and succeeded in convincing them [the Gaza settlers].’ But he hadn’t, so he couldn’t, and he didn’t.

A full year after disengagement was unveiled, Harel is still palpably hurting, even disbelieving.

‘To have changed so radically in one day…,’ he exclaims at one point, the man with a self-declared ‘reputation for moderation’ unhesitatingly branding the prime minister’s shift ‘a betrayal.’

And it is here, amid that terrible sense of grievance, that he sounds less pragmatic and much more emotional.

‘You simply can’t change such profound ideological and strategic paradigms, and ask the public that has made such sacrifices for the sake of those paradigms to accept the change… After four years of war – those who paid the highest price, they have to give up their homes? It should have been the opposite,’ he almost wails. ‘They should have been the heroes.’

So is it Harel the savvy pragmatist who considers the defeat of Gush Katif can still likely be averted? Or Harel the betrayed, emotional pioneer?

ANGUISHED BY the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Harel in the late 1990s strove to establish a dialogue between Israelis of all views in the ‘Forum for National Responsibility.’

And it was that Harel, moderate Harel, whom radio producer after producer sought out this week when news of the Wallerstein letter broke. They called up to broadcast his anticipated condemnation of his Ofra neighbor’s brazen call for law-breaking. He never made it on air.

‘I said I agreed with Pinhas. They said, ‘oh, sorry,’ and hung up.’ He smiles wanly.

For all the glorious tradition of civil disobedience, doesn’t Harel fear an escalation into terrible violence?
‘There is no potential for civil war here, David,’ he assures me, the gentle tones belying the dismissive certainty, ‘because the Left doesn’t care enough about anything to go to war, and the Right won’t because it loves the people of Israel too much.’

Actually, he immediately clarifies, ‘that’s not to say that there aren’t some youths on the hills who will use guns, but these are criminals.’

And, actually, ‘yes, there’ll be violent resistance, but not live fire’ at the confrontation points – ‘like there was on the hilltops [at the West Bank outposts], but much wider-scale.’

The scale, for Harel, is everything, the source of his conviction that Sharon can yet be thwarted on the ground.

‘A government that will have to fight tens of thousands of people can’t win.’ Up to a certain limit, such protests can be handled, lawbreakers jailed. ‘But look what’s happening now in Ukraine. When enough people break the law – 5,000, 10,000 people – what can you do against them? Putin had to order new elections.’

And the Gaza settlers will have tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank with them, and a few thousand from inside Israel, too. ‘And now you have 3,000 soldiers and officers who have already signed a petition [advocating refusal to evacuate settlers]. And I know there’s three times that many [soldiers who feel the same], a vast number who will refuse orders. That’s a split in the army.

‘And the chief of General Staff can lecture forever about the need to follow orders.’ Harel himself has always loudly opposed those who advocate refusal. ‘But on this scale, the lectures are irrelevant. It becomes the prime minister’s problem. The defense minister’s. If the best of his people [in the army] are saying it, and so many of them, the quantity changes perceptions.

‘So Sharon can be euphoric that he has a Knesset majority. But on the ground that doesn’t matter. That’s what Pinhas, without even planning it, did this week… Four hundred thousand people heard about it [on the radio]. And suddenly all the settlers felt instinctively that this reflected them. This was their voice.’

What does the pragmatist in Harel say to Sharon’s demographic argument – about relinquishing control over substantial proportions of the Palestinian people to keep an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic? Again, he is dismissive.

‘There is no demographic problem’ in the territories, he says. ‘The demographic problem is in Umm el-Fahm, Taibe’ – the Arabs in Israel, with a birthrate twice as high as the Jews, and a 32 percent share of this year’s first-grade pupils, and 68% of their population aged under 20, compared to 36% of Jews.

‘Uzi Dayan, a friend of mine, knows that he’s lying when he says we’re losing our majority between the Jordan and the sea.’

How so?

‘Ninety-six percent of the Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are under PA control, in areas A and B. It’s a de facto Palestinian state, by order of an internationally recognized government agreement, Oslo II. So the concern of a parliament with an Arab majority just doesn’t apply.’

But the Palestinians don’t accept that. And neither does the international community.

Harel is withering. ‘And they won’t argue even if we do pull out?’

WHAT IF he’s right, and the democratically elected government of Israel, having sought and won approval for its policies from its sovereign parliament, proves unable to implement them? What then for Israel, its democracy, social fabric, future?

‘That’s an answer the prime minister has to give,’ he says first, his mouth a thin line of disapproval. ‘There’ll be elections. He’ll lose. And we’ll have a government with a different policy. Because this move is unacceptable from a Zionist, democratic, strategic and humane point of view…

‘We have to reverse that, because the terrorists’ knowledge that they have won is more dangerous, perhaps, than the Iranian nuclear bomb.’

How will the tens of thousands even get to Gaza to resist? The army has plans to seal the area off far in advance.

He smiles indulgently at the naivete. ‘We’ll find a way to get there. Half of Ofra was in Sinai.’

Not the best precedent.

‘Aah, but there the residents didn’t want to stay. They wanted compensation. The media plays up the [mainly secular] settlements that want compensation today. But the Orthodox settlements are the hard core. There are families who have absorbed 20 mortar shells. They’re not moving.’

And just like those soldiers outside Bethlehem in 1979, the government, and its divided army, says Harel, will ultimately defer to them.

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