As the Labor Party moved closer this week to joining Likud in a new coalition government to implement the Gaza disengagement plan, Israeli settlers stepped up their opposition by donning orange Stars of David and calling for civil disobedience against the withdrawal.
The orange Stars of David, reminiscent of the yellow stars the Jews of Europe were forced to wear by the Nazis, were to be distributed this weekend, but some settlers in Gaza began wearing them Tuesday and a picture of one of them with the star on her lapel ran on the front page of an Israeli newspaper.
The star touched off a firestorm of protests in Israel, home to about 250,000 survivors. It was a prime topic of conversation on Israeli radio talk shows and generated waves of disgust throughout the country.
Shinui leader Tommy Lapid was quoted as saying the tactic demeans settlers and the memory of Holocaust victims. “Making someone move out of his home is sad, but it’s not a concentration camp, nor the gas chambers nor the ovens of Auschwitz,” he said.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center accused the settlers of cheapening the memory of Holocaust victims. And Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, issued a statement that said the tactic “perverts the historical facts and damages the memory of the Shoah. … It is important that the memory of the Shoah remain a unifying factor in Israeli society – not the opposite.”
Yuli Tamir, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, hurriedly submitted a bill to make it illegal to use Holocaust symbols and images for other than educational purposes or to remember the Nazi victims.
The star tactic was the idea of Roni Bakshi, 40, a Gaza resident who admitted that the idea was “scandalous” but said it had accomplished its purpose — to “shock” the nation.
“I would not dare to do such a thing if I did not take so seriously this plan to expel Jews from their homes,” she was quoted as saying.
But not all settlers supported the star tactic. Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion, said simply: “They shouldn’t use it. The Shoah [Holocaust] contains memories and blood and it should not be used freely.”
But Goldstein said the “vast majority” of settlers will oppose the tactic and that “just like anything else in Israel, it won’t be in the press for long.”
A poll of settlers published Wednesday found that only 30 percent supported wearing the star.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called the orange star campaign “despicable, objectionable and foolish. It divides the settlers themselves and creates a visceral feeling of anger on the part of those who support them. It was unnecessary.”
Ratcheting up the discourse was settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein, who sent letters to settlers at the beginning of the week urging them to peacefully resist evacuation efforts from 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank. In an interview with Israel Army Radio, Wallerstein stressed that he was asking for non-violent resistance.
“It’s a far cry from a civil rebellion,” he said. “I’m ready to pay the price of democracy, to be punished and to go to jail.”
The Yesha Council, an umbrella group that represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, responded by endorsing the resistance but also emphasizing that there must be no violence.
But Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said “there are lunatics in the settlements who would act with no restrictions. … Lunatics don’t always obey orders and act even against their own interests.” He said that many of the settlers “serve in the army and have access to weapons, and I’m afraid that some people will not hesitate to use them against the police and army that come to evacuate them.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the fear of resistance escalating into violence is a real one.
“This is not the U.S. of the ‘60s and Martin Luther King and civil disobedience,” he said. “There is no tradition of civil disobedience in Israel. The fear is that … the intensity of the internal conflict will get out of control. And then to what degree would the police and the army act to remove settlers? How will this affect morale in the military and how will the overall political process in society react? We just don’t know.”
Kedar noted that there are reports of a “wave of soldiers in the reserve and in compulsory service — they are talking in the thousands — who are signing petitions saying they will refuse to obey orders to remove settlers. If too many sign it, the army will have a very big problem implementing the decision to take away [settlers from] the Gaza Strip, not to mention the West Bank.”
The Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted Moshe Yaalon, chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces, as saying he was worried about the reportedly large number of soldiers who were signing the petitions.
Shoval said the government would not accept the refusal of those in the army to obey orders to evacuate settlers “just as we cannot accept their refusal to serve in the territories. There is one army.”
A poll of settlers published Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot found that 52 percent of them said they would try to prevent their evacuation from the Gaza Strip — 10 percent saying they would do so using physical force if necessary. In addition, 42 percent said they would board themselves in their homes, 38 percent said they would leave peacefully but 47 percent they approved of breaking the law to prevent evacuation. These developments came as it appeared that steps necessary to cement a deal for the Labor Party to enter the government were being taken. The action, which would clear the way for Labor Party Leader Shimon Peres to assume the post of deputy prime minister even while Ehud Olmert also holds that title, is expected to be completed in mid-January. The Knesset would have to approve legislation allowing for two deputy prime ministers.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sharon during a visit to Israel Wednesday that he applauded the Gaza disengagement plan and now looked forward to the end of all Palestinian violence so that the peace process could be resumed.
“Terrorism is not the way to a negotiated settlement,” Blair said at a joint press conference with Sharon. “It is the obstacle to a negotiated settlement. … There will be no successful talks toward peace without an end to terrorism.”