Shocking Burial of Slain Settler Highlights Fissures in Israeli Society

Netanel Ozeri’s lifeless head bounced against the hard canvas of a stretcher as friends bore his corpse through Hebron’s muddy hills, making a mad dash to avoid police and soldiers so they could bury Ozeri at the illegal settlement outpost he established a few years ago.

Ozeri, 34, a leading activist in the extremist Kach movement, was murdered by Palestinian terrorists last Friday evening on the doorstep of his isolated home outside Kiryat Arba.

However, it was only after a 16-hourlong funeral — in which his corpse essentially was kidnapped three times — that Ozeri finally was buried in the ancient cemetery in Hebron.

Israelis were shocked by the images of Ozeri’s corpse, swaddled in a bloodstained prayer shawl and with his face intentionally exposed to the elements.

On Monday, Israeli newspapers carried banner headlines with statements such as “Disgrace of the Dead,” and blared page-sized pictures of the corpse in various stages of Sunday’s odyssey.

The episode reminded Israelis of the explosive domestic issues — such as the fate of the settlements and the civil disobedience of the radical settler hard core — that they may have to deal with after the Jan. 28 elections and an anticipated U.S.-led war on Iraq.

The funeral also displayed the internal schisms in the settlement movement, between a hard core of activists and extremists that has frequently come to blows with Israeli soldiers and police and the movement’s mainstream leadership.

The chairman of the Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, has pledged that, if elected, he will withdraw from most of the West Bank within a year, even without a peace agreement. Mitzna, however, is not expected to win the elections.

U.S. officials also have intimated that once an expected war against Iraq is over, the Bush administration will come out much more strongly against Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With the fate of the settlement enterprise in the balance, the extremists feel duty-bound to take action to establish facts on the ground, even at the cost of disobeying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, which is expected to win the elections.

The fervor of the extremist wing, which has established illegal outposts throughout the West Bank and has clashed with soldiers sent to dismantle them, was evident at the funeral early Monday morning.

Eulogizing his friend Ozeri, activist Michael Ben Horin called on settler youth to “rise up, you mountain lion cubs, and avenge Netanel creatively, with vengeance against your enemies, and God will be with us.”

Ben Horin blamed former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the Palestinian intifida — for having given weapons to the Palestinian Authority.

Ben Horin and his youthful followers also chanted against the “leftist Sharon” government, which they say goes too easy on the Palestinians.

One of the settler youth then told the raging crowd, “We won’t take part in their degenerate Western game of ‘elections.’ That’s how we’ll pull the rug out from under their feet.”

Others called for “sweet revenge. They shouldn’t say vengeance is not ours.”

Disgust with the episode cut across partisan lines; the Yesha Council, the governing body of the 200,000-strong settlement movement, said by Sunday night that it wanted to cut any ties to such “half-crazed hoodlums.”

Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor Yosef also described the episode as “sacrilege against the dead.”

Asked if his council had tried to mediate between the groups, Yosef replied, “These are not people you can talk with. They ignored the police, the army, the rabbis,” he said. “They were completely out of control, leaving the orphans to chase around the body of their father through the hills.”

The lawlessness among certain settler elements is a “very alarming phenomenon,” Yosef added.

Privately, settler leaders fear that extremists could bring down the entire settlement venture, driving Israeli public opinion firmly against them and paving the way for the settlements’ eventual evacuation.

Even by the standards of Hebron-area funerals, which are often strident and angry affairs, Ozeri’s funeral was extraordinary.

Friends and loyalists, including Ozeri’s widow, Livnat, essentially kidnapped the corpse three times on Sunday, playing a bizarre game of keep-away both from Ozeri’s elderly parents — who wanted their son buried in Jerusalem so they could visit the grave — and from Israeli police and soldiers.

Livnat and Ozeri loyalists claimed that Ozeri wanted to be buried on Hill 26, the illegal outpost outside Hebron where he lived in a tin and wood hut, to establish another “fact on the ground.”

The outpost was re-established in 2001, after the government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had evacuated it.

Loyalists believed that burying Ozeri on Hill 26 would have ensured that the outpost remained in Israeli hands.

Even before Ozeri’s body was snatched, the funeral had started to go awry.

Livnat Ozeri had decided that her husband should be carried manually to his grave site. Barely 100 yards from the couple’s home, some in the 2,000-person procession began throwing stones at nearby Palestinian homes while chanting “Death to the Arabs.”

Police and soldiers could do little to stop the mob, which used pipes, stones and even pitchforks to smash what they could.

Burnt carcasses of cars dotted the road and women stomped saplings, uprooted vines and pulled cauliflowers from the ground. Some proudly took the produce home with them.

Others took stones and smashed windows and doors, screaming, “We will kill you!” at the Arabs cowering inside.

Police trying to restore order also were stoned and spat upon, and were called “Nazis,” “collaborators” and “capos.”

Throughout the procession, Livnat Ozeri, who was restrained several times from breaking into Palestinian homes, remained fierce and stoic; she did not shed a tear for her husband in public.

The first kidnapping occurred shortly after Livnat Ozeri and her in-laws had reached a compromise agreement, brokered by Hebron Chief Rabbi Dov Lior, to bury Ozeri in Hebron’s old cemetery.

But as a flatbed pick-up truck began transporting the corpse to Hebron, a two-hour argument between members of Ozeri’s family and his former Kach comrades exploded into fistfights. Friends grabbed Ozeri’s body and, carrying it on a stretcher, fled with it across the countryside back toward Hill 26.

They never made it. Police finally caught up with the stretcher-bearers and a ragtag group of 150 supporters. After another standoff, Ozeri’s loyalists again agreed to a compromise, and again the body was loaded on the back of a pickup, this time on the knees of comrades to help stabilize the stretcher.

The convoy left Hill 26 for Kiryat Arba. But suddenly the lead car, which held Livnat Ozeri and her brother, who was an Ozeri devotee, veered off toward the Hebron-Jerusalem highway.

Livnat Ozeri later said she intended to take the body to Jerusalem to protest the government’s refusal to allow her husband to be buried at Hill 26. The convoy was intercepted and police again tried to convince Livnat Ozeri and her supporters to return the body.

They refused, and again made a break for Jerusalem. They got as far north as a checkpoint near Bethlehem, where they learned that the Jerusalem rabbinate refused to allow the corpse to enter Jerusalem because, it said, taking Ozeri’s body into and then out of the holy city was sacrilegious.

Well after midnight, following another struggle with police in which several rioters and police were injured, Livnat Ozeri agreed to return the body to Hebron for a proper burial. By 4 a.m. on Monday, the body finally had been lowered into the ground.

Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, condemned the settlers’ sprint through the Hebron hills with the body, saying “it is very saddening that to the murder of a young man was added the bitter cup of the disgrace of the deceased.”

Ozeri’s family has “no right” over the corpse, Lau said — only the responsibility to bury it, “in the same day, in an orderly place recognized as a cemetery.”

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