It was a photograph that covered the front page of a popular daily paper and moved the Israeli public, regardless of political stripes. Two policemen, Stars of David on their hats, carried a yarmulke-clad preschooler and his baby brother away from their homes for the last time, before the structures were demolished.
Except, that’s not what was happening at all. When Israeli forces evacuated Amona, these children were brought to the outpost by their activist mother Emuna Avi-Yona to ramp up the emotional strength of the protest. After a much-publicized cuddle with policemen, these children went back to their homes, far from the bulldozers that have since been set to work on the Amona buildings.
The very newspaper that splashed the children on the front page, Yediot Achronot, subsequently stated on its website they had not been who they seemed, and interviewed the mother. “This is self-abnegation in the name of our country, and the children will remember this as something good and valuable,” she said.
Amona was a fight of the young. Most of the protesters weren’t quite as young as these tots, but still fresh-faced. They’re youngsters who, in another context, you might ask to help you carry your shopping or, if you needed it, for help crossing the street — which makes the fact that some of them engaged in shocking violence hard to digest.
They have never lived through any serous peace talks that they can remember, and certainly didn’t see or can’t recall the historic handshake between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn. They also can’t remember the depths to which Jew-on-Jew violence plunged Israeli society back on that night in 1995 when Rabin was assassinated — and too many of them don’t really care about the dangers of Jewish extremism when directed at Arabs.
This sketch is unsurprising, as the zeal that they interpreted to justify them throwing iron bars and fire extinguishers at Jewish policemen presents normal Palestinians — not just terrorists or those who incite against Israel but any Palestinian who owns land — as criminals.
This week I talked to Shlomo Aviner, one of the rabbis revered by hard-line settlers and their sympathizers. He stressed that he is against violence and people know this, and that after initially urging people to stream to Amona suspended this call when he thought there could be violence. But he didn’t issue a high-profile plea for people to stay away or for those who went to act calmly. In fact, for the hot-headed youth it can be easy to ignore the no-violence pleas since they’re dazzled by what their role can be in the seemingly cosmic battle over 45 settler homes in what is seen as a rotten High Court and a nation of robbers. The stakes are raised so high that in the eyes of some of the protestors they weren’t crossing a red line — just redrawing it where it should be.
The young people of Israel went out to the streets in droves in 2011 to protest the price of cottage cheese and the price of homes. I remember standing there among the tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, and it felt that something was changing, while today supermarket bills continue to rise and house prices are still astronomical. It’s not hard to see what attracts some youngsters to a battle over buildings, over land, over history, over religion. They feel powerless to oppose what they’re told is the victimization of Israel from the U.S., the U.N., the rest of the international community, from the boycotters, and so on — so they seize a cause where just by acting angry as police try to evacuate, they feel they’re fighting back.
Hard-line leaders like Aviner make things seem very simple — and to their audiences, refreshingly so. Palestinian landowners may have deeds for their property, but they’re not really legit, Aviner told me. Why? Because God gave the land to the Jews, those who took it from them were thieves and every gentile since who has owned it has been receiving stolen property. Today’s Palestinian landowners are the latest link in a “chain of thieves.” He doesn’t mind paying them off in order to go “beyond the letter of the law” so long as they accept a deal, but if they don’t, says that they shouldn’t be allowed to keep their property.
The Amona lobby has even tried to promote this logic in a more secular incarnation. After talking to Aviner, I caught up with Amona evacuee Eli Greenberg; he tells me that you don’t need to go hundreds of years back to support this idea that “the Israeli court said that the thieves are the owners.” He triumphantly cites the Balfour Declaration of 1917. “Let’s go back and study some history,” he says to me, with scholarly authority, saying that doing so will prove that land ownership claims by gentiles are bogus. Yes, to that that famously vague British nod to Zionist aspirations, issued before the powers in London were even in control of Jerusalem. But whether it’s Balfour or the Bible that get him there, he’s convinced that private land ownership by Palestinians is a “fiction.”
Some of my conversations with settlers in recent days have ended with very different conclusions. The poet Eliaz Cohen, a member of the management committee at the West Bank kibbutz Kfar Etzion, told me that if he discovered his home was on privately owned Palestinian land and the owners didn’t want to sell, he would leave without protest. Discussing the reactions of other settlers said: “For the mitzvah of setting in the Land of Israel they forgot the moral basics, which should be our basis.”
On Monday, the Knesset voted for legislation egged on by the logic of Aviner and Greenberg. The young people of the social protests got a couple of their leaders onto the Knesset opposition benches; the young people of the Amona protests, those who attended in person and those who just seethed from home, have propelled one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in Israel’s history into law. The Jewish Home Party knows that these are its current and future fan base, and the ruling Likud knows that it can’t be out-hawked by Jewish Home.
It’s likely that this law will be struck down by a High Court employing the logic of Cohen. Presuming it is, the youth who were at Amona will go on to hold up this protest as a defining moment in their lives and go on battling against Palestinian land ownership and for Jewish control. Their fight is reminiscent of that of the Oslo era, but in a sense it’s even more divisive, more a clash of worldviews, as it’s not just about rival ideological visions, but about faith-based ideology being brought to trump civilly recognized land rights.
The Oslo-era clash climaxed in the death of a prime minister. This one has already left 60 police officers injured, and one shudders to think where the most extreme elements are prepared to take it.