The running confrontation in the Negev desert this week between Jewish settlers attempting to march into Gaza and Israeli troops determined to stop them was more than just another policy dispute. It was the opening of the deepest fissure yet in a gaping abyss that is dividing Israel in two and could ultimately swallow the Jewish state.
The protest was mobilized by the Yesha or Judea-Samaria-Gaza Settlers Council, which has spearheaded efforts to block Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank next month. The council had intended to gather some 100,000 protesters on Monday at the Negev town of Netivot and then march across the desert to the Kissufim crossing point into Gaza. Their plan was to reach keep on walking past the border checkpoint and enter the Gush Katif settlement bloc, where they hoped to stay until August, making the planned evacuation of the bloc all but impossible.
Anticipating such attempts at mass infiltration, the Israeli government last week declared the entire Gaza Strip a closed military zone, off-limits to all but residents and authorized personnel. The protesters’ plan this week was to ignore the ban. They assumed that if they marched in sufficient numbers, the Israeli army would be incapable of blocking such a massive human tide — except, perhaps, by deployment of such massive force that public opinion would at last be turned away from the government and toward the settlers.
For Israel’s defense establishment, the prospect of the marchers approaching the Gaza border in force was a nightmare. Though few discussed it openly, it was understood that the marchers were being watched closely by Palestinian and other Arab leaders just on the other side of Israel’s other borders. If 50,000 Israeli protesters could trample Israel’s southern border fence and march into Gaza, what would prevent 50,000 Palestinians from marching in the opposite direction? If Israel cannot defend its borders from its own citizens, how can it hope to survive?
The Negev march is just the most extreme expression of an increasingly irrational desperation that has seized the settler movement since the disengagement plan was adopted. For months, settler groups have been ratcheting up their tactics — calling on soldiers to disobey orders, attempting to disable military vehicles, even threatening to take over military bases. Their actions now threaten the very Israeli security they claim to be defending.
Settlement advocates have managed over the past generation to capture a sort of moral high ground within Judaism, particularly in the Orthodox wing, by presenting themselves as the vanguard of a proud Israel recapturing its biblical patrimony. They’ve raised up a generation of youth, both in Israel and here in the Diaspora, who cannot imagine Israel withdrawing from territories and seeking peace through compromise. They’ve convinced themselves that their way, and only their way, guarantees Israel’s future.
Israel has now decided otherwise. It’s headed down a path of compromise that its leadership — political, military and diplomatic — considers not just essential but urgent. It’s time for religious leaders to back away from the brink and tell their followers the truth.