JERUSALEM (Dec. 31)
The symbolism of Shoshana Selavan’s T-shirt, splattered with red paint to look like blood, was obvious.
Posing sullenly for the cameras, Selavan stood in front of dozens of protesters chanting slogans and blowing whistles across from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office on a bright Sunday morning.
A Hebrew slogan on the shirt warned Barak that he would be responsible for any Jewish blood spilled because of a hasty peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. A sign Selavan held — easily flipped from English to Hebrew for the appropriate media — read “Jewish Residents Against Partitioning the Old City.”
Selavan, a 38-year-old mother of five, had never before participated in such demonstrations, but she is terrified by the possibility that under a permanent peace agreement the Old City of Jerusalem might soon be divided between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I live in the Jewish Quarter and I don’t plan on leaving,” she said. “They are putting our lives in danger. Our kids will not even be able to go to school.”
Selavan’s first demonstration with the “Women in Green” group came as several right-wing organizations coordinate their efforts against a proposed accord that would divide Jerusalem, cede Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount and abandon many Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The groups are incensed by the fact that Barak is willing to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians on the basis of President Clinton’s far-ranging proposals, even as Palestinian violence continues.
On Sunday, right-wing activist Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane and his wife, Talia, were killed in a West Bank shooting that left five of their daughters wounded. Son of assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, Binyamin Kahane led the Kahane Chai party, which was outlawed in Israel for its anti-Arab rhetoric.
In addition, a senior member of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction was gunned down near his home in the West Bank city of Tulkarm.
The right-wing groups reject Barak’s argument that the continuing negotiations are the only way to end the conflict and prevent a regional war.
Barak lacks the legitimacy to sign a deal, they argue, since he has little support in Parliament and on Feb. 6 will face Likud Party Chairman Ariel Sharon in elections.
Opinion polls show that many Israelis agree.
But Israelis by and large also are weary of politics, polemics and partisanship. Even though the agreements under discussion today are much more far-reaching and controversial than the interim accords of the mid-1990s, it remains to be seen whether groups like Women in Green will succeed in bringing huge numbers of Israelis into the streets, as they have in the past.
Between 1993 and 1997, organizations such as the Yesha Council — the umbrella organization of Jewish settlers — Women in Green and Zo Artzeinu led the opposition to the Oslo accords amid a wave of bombings by Palestinian terrorists that killed scores of Israelis.
Their grass-roots campaigns played a key role in stirring up popular opposition to the agreements, and were a comfortable forum for public appearances by leaders of the Likud Party. Many left-wing Israelis still believe that these rallies created the environment that encouraged Yigal Amir to assassinate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.
Perhaps this is why Nadia Matar, leader of Women in Green, made sure to stress the nonviolent nature of the new campaign, even as she led chants of the harsh slogans.
“Criminals. Traitors. You gave them weapons,” she screamed through a loudspeaker that echoed off the Prime Minister’s Office. “Today is just the opening shot of the start of a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.”
Protesters then plunked themselves down in the street a few feet from the gate to Barak’s office. Border police and security men looked on from the sides.
Loudspeakers, whistles, and party horns did little to amplify the small crowd’s voice. Yet with signs screaming slogans such as “Barak Is Pulling Out Our Heart,” their message — the potential deepening of internal Israeli divisions — was hammered home.
For many of the 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the possibility that dozens of settlements would be dismantled as part of a withdrawal from 95 per cent of the West Bank is a mortal blow to their ideology. Many religious settlers maintain that the entire biblical Land of Israel — including the West Bank and Gaza — must remain an integral part of the modern Jewish state.
Others oppose the deal for more practical reasons, convinced that ceding the West Bank would only bring violence by implacable Palestinian militants that much closer to Israel’s heartland.
With the Palestinians’ current violence directed primarily against the settlers, they find little comfort in suggestions that they can stay where they are if they agree to live under Palestinian rule.
“We have a precedent where hundreds of thousands of Jews will be turned into refugees or will be exposed to such imminent danger that they themselves will get up and leave,” said Yehudit Tayar, spokeswoman for the Yesha Council. “Nobody will stand for this. If they try to evacuate settlements, I can promise you they will not encounter a few hundred people; they will encounter thousands.”
It’s far from certain that the right-wing groups can succeed in rallying a majority of Israelis to their cause, but they at least can reach a critical mass that cannot be ignored.
Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, estimates that there probably are about 100,000 hard-core ideological settlers who easily can be mobilized.
“I definitely would not underestimate their potential power,” he says.
At the same time, these groups could be a political burden for Likud chief Sharon as he struggles to reinvent himself as a moderate leader, capable of uniting the country and leading it to peace.
“If these groups take measures that are too extreme they could hurt Sharon dramatically” by alienating centrist voters, Diskin said. “In addition, there are about 1,000 people from among the settlers who are very extreme. They feel their dream is collapsing and they could resort to violence.”
That prospect was revived with the murder of Binyamin Kahane, whose father Meir Kahane founded the anti-Arab Kach movement and was gunned down in New York in 1990.
Binyamin Kahane later led the Kahane Chai splinter group, which took an even more extreme line and overtly advocated violence against Arabs. Like Kach, which was outlawed in 1988, Kahane Chai was barred from Knesset elections in 1992.
Tiran Pollack, a radical activist close to Binyamin Kahane, promised revenge.
“The murder of a Jew must not pass quietly,” he warned in an interview on Israel Radio. “Arabs should live in the fear that for every hair of a Jew that falls, the head of an Arab may roll.”
This is clearly not the policy of groups such as Women in Green and the Yesha Council. However, the groups do appear to be preparing events with more punch than a simple sit-in.
Last week, dozens of members of a small group known as the Temple Mount Faithful attempted to break through police barricades and penetrate the disputed compound where the Jewish temples once stood and which today houses the Al-Aksa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.
Members of the group scuffled with police, branded Barak a traitor and warned of more extreme acts to come. For years, the group has lobbied to allow Jews to pray atop the mount, but Israeli governments have kept them out for fear of provoking the Wakf, or Islamic religious authority, which administers the compound.
Later that night, leading rabbis of the religious Zionist movement convened in Jerusalem and unleashed stinging attacks against Barak.
Rabbi Zalman Melamed, chairman of the Yesha Rabbinical Committee, was quoted in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv as saying the time has come to act.
“Whoever awakens to do any sort of act should know it is all with the blessings of the rabbis,” he said. When asked how people should resist, he said “in every possible way” — but stopped short of endorsing violent or illegal activity.
Similarly, Ruth Matar, co-chairman of Women in Green, was vague about what is planned. She did not rule out that Israelis would try to storm the Temple Mount.
Matar believes her group will be able to draw the masses to the streets, and hints at what may occur should the government try to evacuate settlers.
“Evacuation and ethnic cleansing would be highly illegal,” she said. “If there were soldiers who came to physically attack people, including evacuation, then I would say we no longer consider them our brothers.”