"The law breakers at the Ephraim Brigade base camp are just like the law breakers at the Fence demonstrations in Bil'in, and should be treated the same" said the Prime Minister of Israel yesterday. As it happens, at exactly the same time there was a broadcast on the TV Documentary Channel a film about the activities of "Anarchists Against the Wall" in such villages as Bil'in and Ni'lin and recently also Nabi Saleh. Had the Prime Minister put on the TV set in his office, he would have seen soldiers opening up with a heavy barrage of tear gas as soon as protesters approached within tens of yards away, even without a single stone having been thrown. He could have seen how activist Matan Cohen was shot at close range and lost an eye. (There happened to be a photographer nearby, who documented in real time the bleeding eye). And the Channel 10 News this evening broadcast photos from the killing of Mustafa Tamimi last Friday at Nabi Salah and the killing of Bassam al Tamimi in Bil'in last year, both shot by soldiers from close range. (So far, Channel 10 is still broadcasting, though it is under imminent threat of being closed down next month...)
In response, the spokesperson of the Army's Central Command expressed his wonder: "What did Mustafa Tamimi expect when he ran after a moving jeep and threw stones?" Indeed, what did he think? Now it is a bit late to ask him. And what were the young settlers thinking just four days later, when they opened such a door of an army jeep - whose passenger was an IDF brigade commander - hitting him in the head with a heavy stone? Were they afraid of sharing Mustafa Tamimi's end? If they had any such apprehension, it was certainly baseless. Actually, none of the many soldiers present did anything to prevent them from assaulting the commanding officer, calling him a Nazi, and walking calmly away.
And after that the young settlers went in a great crowd through the main gate into the base camp of the Ephraim Brigade, without the guard blocking their way. (The guard at the gate of an army base is quite low in the military hierarchy, without much authority or standing – but the one thing he can be reasonably expected to do is prevent the entry of unauthorized persons…) . They entered the camp openly and brazenly, damaged military vehicles and slashed tires openly, in front of dozens of watching soldiers, and at the end of this operation went back through the same open gate decorated by the same guard, and went blithely back to their homes in the settlements.
So what should the soldiers have done? Open fire? With all due respect to Labor KM Ben-Eliezer, this might have been an unnecessary exaggeration. It would have probably been quite enough to declare "you are all under arrest", take the entire band into the nearest available detention cell, and on the following morning ask a judge to remand them in custody on charges of aggravated assault and destruction of property.
But if it's that simple, how come it never occurred to any of the soldiers and officers present? Probably because already for decades it has been made crystal clear to soldiers entering service in the Occupied Territories, that their role and function is to help, facilitate and protect the settlers - at all times under all conditions and at all costs. When settlers take over a piece of land and establish a new outpost, the soldiers' mission is clear: first of all deploy to protect the settlers from any threat (including, and especially, from th side of the angry Palestinian owners of the land; only later (if at all) check into the legality of their presence there. In general, in any conflict between settlers and Palestinians, there is no question what the role of the soldiers should be: first, use all means to help the settlers, and only later (if ever) check exactly what happened there, and why, and who is responsible and who is to blame.
Actually, all this began already in 1967. Already when Rabbi Levinger and his band set themselves up in Hebron for the first time and created a fait accompli, and the military governor sought to evict them due to his best professional judgment that their presence constituted the danger of a violent conflagration dangerous. But the political echelon (a Labor Party Cabinet, at the time ...) made it very clear to the governor that there are higher considerations which override the best of an officer's professional judgment. And ever since then, this lesson had been instilled and made clear to many generations of soldiers and officers. (Not to mention that an increasing proportion of the soldiers and officers are themselves settlers or come from the settler-friendly National Religious community, and that an ever decreasing number of people from other parts of the Israeli society are enthusiastic about serving in these places and in that army...)
Last night the Prime Minister delivered a magnificent speech at the Likud Governing Council and promised that all this will would change, and that from now on harsh measures and severe penalties would be effected against anyone doing such things. Is he serious? There is, in fact, no need to take very drastic measures. Quite enough to convey new instructions through the army's normal chain of command which make clear to soldiers that in such circumstances it is their duty to arrest the settlers.
So what is going to happen next time that the Price Tag Hilltop Youth decide to go berserk? Probably we will not have to wait long to know the answer.