Paul Raymond
The Guardian
October 15, 2008 - 8:00pm

No religious festival in Jerusalem would be complete without a controversial political incident, and this year's Yom Kippur was no exception. A group of nearly a hundred rightwing radicals forced their way on to the plaza of the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred sites in Islam. Entering the precinct on Yom Kippur was a symbolic way of claiming Jewish sovereignty over the site many consider to be the location of the second temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

While it is not unusual for events on the Temple Mount to trigger renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) was triggered in 2001 by then Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the site – the latest events also have much to say about the current political situation in Israel itself. A growing current of hardline neo-Zionist militancy is terrorising Palestinians, leftwing Israelis and state authorities alike. As the Israeli government desperately tries to come to an agreement with the Palestinian Authority and undermine Hamas, the problem of evacuating settlements inhabited by violent ultra-nationalists will be near the top of a list of thorny challenges for the next Israeli administration.

There is plenty of evidence that the right wing radical fringe is growing. In mid-September, over 200 vigilantes from the illegal West Bank settlement of Yitzhar invaded the nearby Palestinian village of Asira al-Qibliyyah with guns and slingshots, in response to the stabbing of a Jewish boy from the settlement.

But settler violence is not limited to attacks against Palestinians. Two weeks after the assault on Asira, leftwing Israeli professor Ze'ev Sternhell, a staunch critic of the settlement movement, was injured by a pipe bomb on his doorstep. It was widely assumed that rightwing activists placed it there, although the settlers' supporters were quick to accuse Israeli intelligence forces of launching a sinister leftwing conspiracy to discredit them. Later, prominent settler leader Daniela Weiss was arrested for attacking Israeli police officers during the evacuation of the illegal settlement of Shvut Ami, giving a further indication of the gulf between Israeli state authorities and the radical right.

It is clear that the rift has implications for the current round of talks with the Palestinians. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister, has argued that Israelis should abandon the Zionist utopia of the Greater Land of Israel, resorting instead to a territorial compromise in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians. After the events of September 13, Yitzhar's rabbi, David Dudkevich, who claims that the Arabs should emigrate from the "Land of Israel", launched a public tirade against the idea. Among other things, he endorsed the proposal of a separate state, Judea, which would be established alongside Israel should the latter decide to abandon the Zionist dream.

"It's obvious that a great many people who are secure in their Judaism feel emotionally distant from the state, which is in another place altogether," he told Haaretz newspaper. "The state of Israel is not the be-all and end-all. If it decides it does not want to be in the hereditary lands of our forefathers, then other Jews have the right to organise themselves in order to live there, even without a link to the state. When there's talk about another expulsion, then on the ideological level, the 'State of Judea' is no worse than expulsion."

The irony is that settler radicalism was nurtured by the Israeli state in the first place. Over the years, Likud governments in particular encouraged non-ideological Israelis to settle in the West Bank in the hope that they would adopt views that fitted the rightwing agenda of that party. It was also an effective strategy for gaining control of the Occupied Territories and guaranteeing that the maximum possible territory would be ceded to Israel should the US force her into a deal with the Palestinians.

However, the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza placed the state authorities charged with implementing government policy – namely the police – at loggerheads with those settlers. The image of Israeli police forcibly evicting Jews from their homes created a wound in Israeli society that has been festering ever since. Several thousand young people who lived their entire childhoods in Gaza settlements now feel abandoned by the state and are willing to take out their frustration, often violently, against both Palestinians and the Israeli authorities.

Thus the Israeli government now faces huge dilemmas in the context of the current round of Israeli-Palestinian talks and also in how it deals with its own citizens. If the implication of Olmert's comments is that more settlement evacuations are on the cards, and forcing that past a group of armed, radical settlers who have sworn their enmity to the state will be every bit as hard as negotiating an agreement with the Palestinians.


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