Israel Poised To Grant Amnesty To Protesters of Gaza Pullout

Evacuation Demonstration: Amnesty appears likely for those arrested in protests against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement of 2005.
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Evacuation Demonstration: Amnesty appears likely for those arrested in protests against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement of 2005.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published November 30, 2009, issue of December 11, 2009.
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Even as concern grows about civil resistance to new government construction limits in the West Bank, a Knesset committee has approved a bill to scrub clean the records of right-wingers arrested during violent protests against Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

Under the bill, approved unanimously in late November by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, legal proceedings would be dropped against 400 people charged during violent protests before, during and after the disengagement. Only the 82 people up for the most serious charges — such as those that put lives at risk — will continue to face prosecution.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet officially declared his stance on the bill, but he looks set to back it and to demand that his coalition does likewise. This is, in part, because he welcomed the idea when it was first put forth before he took office. The bill also presents him with a rare opportunity to repair his standing in right-wing settler circles following a partial moratorium on new settlement construction his government has imposed on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Given that most lawmakers of the opposition Kadima party also plan to back the bill, it is likely to pass the remaining hurdles of two Knesset-wide votes that are expected to take place early next year.

The legislation comes amid a recent tide of vows by settlers to defy government orders to stop new West Bank settlement construction or evacuate unauthorized settlement outposts. Even some soldiers have joined in. Opponents of the bill claim that the proposed amnesty encourages such resistance and undermines the rule of law. But its advocates say it can help Israel get over the past. “The disengagement was a national trauma; it is

impossible to compare it with any other social crisis,” Likud lawmaker and Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin told Israeli media after the committee vote. “The amnesty law will help to heal the rift in Israeli society and to correct the injustice done to the families who were evacuated from their homes.”

There were, indeed, deep schisms between left and right at the time of the Gaza evacuation of 2005, and political scientists have written widely about a sense of alienation felt in the religious-Zionist community. Following rocket fire by Palestinian guerillas from Gaza into southern Israel, the disengagement has also become retroactively less popular. According to a poll conducted this past summer, 68% of Israelis who were in favor of the disengagement now believe that it was a mistake.

For many politicians, this justifies an amnesty. Now, “the majority of the public understands that the disengagement was a great error that seriously harmed Israel’s security, economy and society and was a social and political trauma,” Likud faction chairman Ze’ev Elkin declared after the committee vote. Therefore, he said, lawmakers needed to pass the amnesty for the “sake of the evacuees” and the “unity of Israeli society.”

Gil Messing, spokesman for Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, said of his party’s lawmakers, “We believe that there’s a need for reconciliation in Israeli society, and if this can help, it should help.”

But some lawmakers and political activists are determined to fight the bill. They form an unusual alliance of doves from the left, law enforcement hard-liners from the right and even-handed centrists.

Peace Now is lobbying against the bill, and its secretary general, Yariv Oppenheimer, told the Forward that if it passes, his group may challenge the measure in the Supreme Court.

The bill, Oppenheimer argued, is “undemocratic and unfair.”

“I think what we are seeing is that the state has a special relationship to the settlers,” he said.

The committee vote on the bill comes as the public debates problems that the government may encounter in implementing its recently declared partial moratorium on new settlement construction on the West Bank — not to mention possible future evacuations, whether large- or small-scale.

Settler leaders have declared that they will block government inspectors from entering their settlements to implement the partial moratorium, announced last month in response to demands from the United States for a comprehensive freeze on West Bank settlement expansion. In mid-November, six religious-Zionist soldiers in a battalion sometimes used for West Bank evacuations also waved a banner on their base, declaring that their battalion “also does not evacuate.” They were reacting to a recent high-profile incident in which two soldiers belonging to another battalion used for evacuations flew a banner during a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The banner declared, “Shimshon [Battalion] will not expel Homesh.” Homesh was one of the West Bank settlements evacuated along with Gaza settlements in 2005. Settlers and their supporters have since been trying to re-establish an outpost at the site.

Critics also cite a policy of violent resistance to curbs on settlement activity by some settlers as part of their so-called “Operation Price Tag” policy. Under this policy, extremist settlers riot and attack soldiers and Palestinians whenever there is an outpost evacuation.

Oppenheimer said that in this context, an amnesty for past wrongdoing by settlers and their supporters sends the wrong message. “The most problematic thing is that if there will be an evacuation, the result will be more violence and more illegal [action], as people will think that after charges they will get pardoned again,” he said.

Other opponents of the bill include government coalition members who will find themselves torn if Netanyahu demands that the coalition back the bill as a bloc.

Public Security Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Yitzhak Aharonovitch says that his tough stance on crime trumps his party’s sympathy for settlers. His spokesman, Eido Minkovsky, told the Forward that Aharonovitch is against the blanket dropping of charges for any group. “You can’t mix law enforcement and politics,” he said.

A minority within Likud also opposes the bill. The Likud’s Dan Meridor, one of four deputy prime ministers, takes the view “that people should know that if they committed a crime, they will be tried.” Meridor told the Forward that while there may be grounds “to be lenient” with certain disengagement offenders, this should be done through the established channel of presidential pardons and not through blanket legislation.

In rare agreement with Aharonovitch and Meridor is Haim Oron, chairman of the dovish Meretz party. “The Israeli justice [system] should decide how to deal with these cases,” Oron told the Forward.

There is also some disagreement within the opposition Kadima party over the bill. Some Kadima lawmakers believe that there is a place for waiving charges from the time of the disengagement — but only if it is across the board. A small number of police officers and soldiers still face proceedings for alleged brutality against settlers during the evacuation. Yet the proposed law pardons only protesters. Referring to the police officers and soldiers, Kadima lawmaker Yohanan Plesner told the Forward, “If we’re about to pardon or stop legal proceedings against some people, we should also do so for others.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com






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