TEL AVIV (Aug. 2)
The column of armored sport-utility vehicles waited, engines humming, as a phalanx of bodyguards ushered Prime Minister Ariel Sharon into the third truck from the end. As the convoy cleared the main gate of the Israeli government head’s residence, a set of decoy vehicles turned north, toward Jerusalem, while the remaining units proceeded south toward the Negev, where Sharon planned to tour absorption sites being built for hundreds of Israeli families soon to be evacuated from their Gaza Strip homes. For Sharon, the site inspections this spring were a welcome excursion beyond his Jerusalem office compound or his Negev ranch. But for officers charged with protective security, the outing rivaled an elite combat operation.
Hours earlier, crack teams descended on each of the six kibbutzim and farming villages on the morning’s itinerary, creating "sterile" zones for Sharon to meet with pre-screened residents and local leaders. At each stop, a bridgehead of agents cleared the way for the advancing prime minister while, 15,000 feet overhead, an unmanned reconnaissance drone scanned the scene with high-powered optics.
"We don’t spare any effort, money and tools in order to protect the prime minister from the growing threat," Avi Dichter, the recently retired director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, told JTA.
Dichter was talking less about Palestinian terrorists seeking to harm Sharon than about "Jewish ultra-extremists who are sure that one way to block the disengagement is by harming, if not killing, the prime minister," he said, referring to the controversial plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank that Sharon pushed through his government.
As the planned mid-August pullout approaches, many fear that protests against the Sharon government could give way to acts of violence. As ringleaders from the far right vow to thwart the withdrawal, security officials are increasingly warning of the prospect of Jewish terrorism.
According to Dichter, the Shin Bet has assessed a number of scenarios, including the prospect of a Jewish suicide bomber.
"We’re not ruling out a Jewish suicide bomber who might use ‘tamut nafshi pilishtim’ as his rationale," Dichter said, referring to Samson’s words in the Bible as he brought down the Philistine temple around himself, "Let me die with the Philistines."
The Knesset Finance Committee last month authorized a budgetary increase of nearly $90 million to cover extra costs associated with Sharon’s personal protection, which a committee aide estimated at some $230 million a year.
While many protective measures were mandated by a commission of inquiry following the 1995 assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — and extended to a wider net of officials after Palestinian terrorists murdered Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze’evi in October 2001– one recently retired Shin Bet official said the security around Sharon was unprecedented and was directly related to the Jewish terror threat.
"The fact that we now are dealing with internal threats definitely compounds our security requirements," the former official said.
Aides say Sharon is disturbed but not deterred by threats from nationalistic elements he once considered his most ardent supporters.
"The tension here, the atmosphere here, seems like we’re on the eve of a civil war," Sharon noted in an interview earlier this year on NBC television. "All my life I fought to defend Jews. Now, for the first time, I am taking steps to defend myself from Jews."
Little more than a decade ago, Rabin used to walk the Tel Aviv streets to his Shabbat-morning tennis session. With his security detail trained to keep watch from a deferential distance, dog walkers and other early risers had no difficulty approaching Rabin in his tennis whites.
In the heady but tumultuous period after the 1993 Oslo accord, Rabin circulated relatively freely at public events, eager to glean firsthand feedback from supporters as well as from increasingly strident detractors. He brushed off repeated requests by Carmi Gillon, then the head of Shin Bet, to curtail his public appearances or limit those with whom he came in direct contact. He also refused to wear the bulletproof vest the Shin Bet prescribed.
"Internal security was not a factor in determining his schedule," said Oded Ben-Ami, who served as Rabin’s media adviser at the time. "He absolutely refused to listen to those warning of the so-called Jewish threat."
Ben-Ami recalls the time in early 1994 that Gillon sent Rabin an armored Cadillac to protect him against increasingly rowdy anti-Oslo demonstrators.
"He absolutely refused on principle. No. 1, he didn’t think it would look good for a prime minister of the people to be driving around in the epitome of American luxury. And No. 2, which was probably more important for him, Rabin rejected the notion that he could become a target for domestic violence," Ben-Ami said.
Even as the atmosphere grew increasingly menacing, with political opponents and rabbinical authorities demanding Rabin’s removal for his "traitorous" dealings with the then Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, his 1995 slaying by a religious university student stunned Israel and the world.
On that fateful night in November 1995, Israelis lost not only a leader but also their relatively free access to those in positions of power in the government.
In retrospect, said Hezi Kalo, a former Shin Bet official, the incitement against Rabin pales in comparison with the invective hurled at Sharon and supporters of the withdrawal plan, such as "Sharon: Lily is waiting for you," a reference to the prime minister’s recently deceased wife.
"Today it’s much uglier. We haven’t learned our lesson," Kalo said. "We’ve already seen how verbal violence can lead to murder."
Since Sharon began talking of withdrawal in December 2003, opponents of the plan have blocked roadways, planted dummy bombs in public places, and blanketed the country with placards and banners pillorying the prime minister as a "traitor" and a "fascist."
Rabbinic authorities — including two former Israeli chief rabbis — have issued religious rulings against the withdrawal, insisting that Israel Defense Forces soldiers must refuse orders regarding the withdrawal. Other rabbis have fiercely rejected such rulings.
While the rough and tumble of free expression is one of the hallmarks of Israeli democracy, even the most vociferous defenders of the right to protest have been working with the Justice Ministry, the nation’s attorney general and academics to define the lines separating legitimate protest from seditious and violent acts.
At an April seminar sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz noted that clarifications or amendments to existing laws and statutes would help to draw clear lines for protest.
However, he noted, "I’m not naive to think that this alone will stop the next political murder."
Some right-wing activists charge that Israeli security officials trot out such warnings every few months, delegitimizing the opposition, while the supposed threat never materializes.
But Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party legislator who chairs the Knesset Subcommittee on Defense Planning and Policy, is privy to what he said were ominous briefings by security officials concerning the Jewish terror threat.
"The potential for political assassination and civil war here are no longer just rhetorical," he said. "The poisonous atmosphere is getting worse."
"We’re hearing very disturbing reports about the theft and stockpiling of IDF weapons by a small minority of fanatics who could sweep up the entire Israeli society and the region into catastrophe," he said.
Beyond political assassinations, catastrophic scenarios range from the indiscriminate killing of Jewish civilians to guerrilla-style warfare against military and police units charged with implementing the withdrawal. Details of one plan that could have resulted in scores of victims were revealed May 18 in an indictment brought against two brothers, residents of the West Bank settlements Yitzhar and Homesh.
According to charges brought in Tel Aviv District Court, the pair loaded two gasoline-doused vehicles with mattresses, tires and other flammable items and planned to set them ablaze at one of the most congested areas of Tel Aviv’s Ayalon freeway during the morning rush hour.
"The suspects practically and intentionally endangered the security and the lives of all drivers and citizens in the vicinity of the vehicles," the charge sheet proclaimed. "All this was driven by the suspects’ opposition to the disengagement plan."
Dichter said the early May plot easily could have become a double suicide attack.
"Certainly they would have been killed instantly," he said of the two planners, "but the rest would have depended on who crashed into them — a passing bus filled with children? A fuel tanker? God only knows what could have happened there."
Soldiers will not be precluded from defending themselves if settlers open fire during the withdrawal, said the IDF’s new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who called on settlement movement leaders to rein in extremists and prevent events from spiraling out of control.
So, too, have dozens of rabbis who have banded together to criticize colleagues whose interpretations of Jewish religious law appear to sanction violence and insubordination in the army.
"We have a special responsibility to preserve pikuach nefesh," or the sanctity of life, Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, the head of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, told JTA in July.
Leaders of the Yesha settler council have backed resistance to the withdrawal but stress that such resistance should be nonviolent.
Gilad and 80 other rabbis — many of them passionately opposed to the withdrawal plan — insist that civilians must not take the law into their own hands, nor should soldiers refuse orders from their commanders.
Kalo, now a research fellow at the Herzliyah-based Institute for Counter-Terrorism, stresses that most in the right-wing camp are patriotic citizens exercising their right to protest nonviolently against what they truly believe is a betrayal by Sharon and his government.
Nevertheless, Kalo estimates that there are dozens of hard-core opponents, many of them veterans of elite IDF fighting units, with the capability and intention of carrying out terrorist acts.
Meanwhile, Sharon and top brass from the IDF and police force are trying to boost the morale of soldiers who will have to confront any anti-withdrawal extremists. As the clock ticks down to the mid-August evacuation, senior officers sense that the esprit de corps is eroding, particularly among troops from nationalist communities where the anti-withdrawal slogan "A Jew does not expel a Jew" has deeper resonance.
In the past several weeks, nearly three dozen soldiers have been disciplined, reassigned or arrested for refusing orders, a top Israeli general told JTA in late July.
In addition to the possibility of Jews attacking other Jews, security officials also are afraid of a Jewish extremist attack on the Temple Mount mosques in Jerusalem or other Islamic sites. Their vigilance led to the arrest in April of four suspects in two separate attack plots.
According to a May 16 summary by the Jerusalem District police, three of the men acknowledged under interrogation that they had planned to launch an anti-tank missile at the Temple Mount in hopes of thwarting the Gaza withdrawal.
According to the police document, two brothers in the group — members of the Bratslav Chasidic movement — toured Jerusalem’s Old City and located a yeshiva rooftop overlooking the Temple Mount from which they could launch a missile.
They also planned to throw grenades at police arriving on the scene and then commit suicide, the police alleged in their summary. But the plot never advanced beyond the initial planning stages, the police document says, and the suspects were released on bail after thorough searches yielded no weapons or ammunition.
In the second incident, a Ra’anana businessman, Ilan Hirschfeld, 61, allegedly considered flying a remote-controlled plane over the Temple Mount, hoping that the international tension likely to result from the episode would scuttle the withdrawal.
The police summary described Hirschfeld as "a known supporter of Kahanist activists for many years." But in a July interview with JTA, a longtime family friend denied Hirschfeld’s involvement with or support for outlawed far-right groups and insisted that he dropped the idea out of concern that the camera-equipped aircraft might crash down on Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall.
Hirschfeld too was released once the state determined there was insufficient evidence to indict him. Nevertheless, Israeli police vowed to act forcefully and swiftly to nip any future plots in the bud.
"These cases illustrate the determination and high level of sensitivity that exists within the Jerusalem Police and the General Security Services to any intent or idea to attack the Temple Mount," the May 16 statement concluded.
Those who hope for a peaceful outcome this summer often look back to the 1982 evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Sinai — part of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt — when worst-case scenarios didn’t materialize.
"We were ready for the phenomenon of snipers," recalled Oded Tyrah, a retired IDF brigadier general who managed the withdrawal operation in Sinai’s Yamit settlement. "We had a unit of Golani anti-terror forces ready to go, but we didn’t deploy them."
As challenging and heart-rending as the Sinai evacuation was, security sources say it may seem like child’s play compared with the pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank. This time around, they face a more emotional and committed group of resisters who have a much more spiritual, financial and cultural attachment to the place they’ve called home — some for more than 20 years.
Simha Weiss, 47, who has lived for 16 years in Shalev, a tiny settlement in southern Gaza, insists most longtime residents of the cluster of Jewish communities known as Gush Katif would never think of provoking violence against Israeli forces who come to evacuate them.
"These soldiers are like my own children," she said. "I think I speak for most when I say we will never lift a hand against them, nor will they against us."
Nevertheless, the mother of six said she fears events could lead to bloodshed.
"I’m afraid there will be very tough violence. It will be Jew against Jew," Weiss said.
Interviewed in mid-July — shortly after Sharon declared Gush Katif a closed military zone in an effort to keep outside activists from heading there to foil the evacuation — Weiss said she believes security forces would arrest local hooligans if events threaten to spiral out of control.
"More than 90 percent of the people in Gush Katif are very loving and law-abiding. We don’t want violence," she said. "But the other small percentage, they are looking for trouble."
Worst-case scenarios involve violent, messianic activists who dig themselves into explosive-rigged strongholds, threaten attacks on approaching forces and use children or adults as human shields.
"The more spectacular the better. It will be a huge bonus for them if they manage to enhance their drama with a hostage or two," one Shin Bet source said.
He noted that extremists — many of them second- and third-generation disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane — used a recent standoff at a private hotel and an abandoned Palestinian home in southern Gaza to test the evacuation forces’ tactics and limits.
"It was a probing maneuver. They were testing us," the Shin Bet official said.
In late June, after weeks of provocations by the activists against local Palestinians, Israeli forces finally moved on the two sites, evacuating squatters and confiscating contraband.
Avi Zelba, the chief superintendent in the Israeli police, said security forces arrested four suspects at the hotel and close to 50 at the vacant Palestinian home.
"Some of them we intend to charge and bring to court," he told JTA.
Extremists and security forces continue to play cat-and-mouse games in Gush Katif, but the Shin Bet official said colleagues were girding for even greater challenges in the West Bank settlement Sa-Nur.
"One of the more severe scenarios is a cross between the bunker at Yamit and the Church of Nativity," he said, referring to the tense five-week standoff in Bethlehem between IDF troops and Palestinian gunmen in 2002.
Since Passover, 30 families and another 25 young men have moved to Sa-Nur to "assist us in our fight against the government’s expulsion plan," the community spokeswoman Miriam Adler said.
Speaking to reporters in early July, ahead of the government’s closure of Gush Katif, Adler said thousands of people might flock to Sa-Nur to join what she predicted could evolve into armed resistance. And while security forces also are expected to cordon off Sa-Nur and the other three northern West Bank settlements slated for evacuation after Gaza, residents say it will be much more difficult to limit the influx of supporters due to the area’s hilly topography.
Adler said plans called for groups to hide in the hills, barricade themselves in structures and otherwise "drive the security forces crazy."
"We won’t initiate any violence, but developments in the field will depend on the military," she told visiting reporters. However, she warned, "If security forces will start to beat pregnant women or pull babies out of mothers’ arms, things may spiral out of control."
Adler said residents have no intention of turning in their weapons to security forces, insisting that they need them for self-defense against "the enemy."
Asked if she considers the IDF the enemy, she replied, "The IDF is our opponent, not our enemy. By Ariel Sharon sending the army in here against us as if we are terrorists, he is turning the army into our opponent."
The IDF’s Tyrah said he’s tired of the doomsday scenarios about withdrawal, which lend what he considers unwarranted credibility to "marginal criminals and hooligans" who he said are adept at employing psychological warfare on a nervous public.
Likewise, he said, politicians, rabbis, activists and even security officials need to tone down the rhetoric, and begin to think about the day after the withdrawal.
"Everyone is posturing for media attention. It’s one promo after another, and it’s doing nobody any good," he said. "After the evacuation, we’ll have to live with these people and fight alongside them against the real enemy. So it’s imperative that our government and our security establishment accomplish this mission with utmost determination and professionalism, but also with compassion."