April 10, 2008 11:30 AM
Last summer, midway through my tour of West Bank settlements, I was asked to write a response to a just-published Peace Now report into illegal settlement activity. I duly obliged, but - on top of my de rigueur condemnation of the settlers - added a scathing attack of the utterly ineffectual way in which groups like Peace Now attempted to stand in the path of the settlement juggernaut.
I included a friend's suggestion that the leftwing activists ought to stop worrying about churning out ream after ream of paper-based attacks on the settlers, and instead fight fire with fire. Namely, for every illegal outpost erected by the hilltop youth, there should be a counter-offensive mounted to dismantle the buildings brick by brick and show the settlers that their criminal actions wouldn't be taken lying down.
And, last week, that's exactly what happened - at least, that was the intention of the group which decided to meet the settlers head-on at their outpost near the Palestinian village of Qaddum. Following the army's 11th unsuccessful attempt to evict the settlers from the privately-owned Palestinian land, prominent activist Kobi Snitz and his comrades tried to occupy the area themselves, at the behest of the widow whose property is being squatted on.
A Newsnight crew was there to cover the proceedings, and the predictable explosion of hostilities between the right and left-wingers ended with an equally unsurprising victory for the settlers. "The settlers had reinforcements", presenter Tim Franks explained. "[The battle] didn't last long". According to other reports of the incident, the settlers attacked the activists with blows and rocks, while the IDF looked on, refusing to intervene. The anti-outpost protesters were forced to flee, leaving the settlers free to reoccupy the hilltop once more.
While the protesters promised to return at a later date to continue their struggle on behalf of the Palestinian landowner, the truth is the cards are heavily stacked against them - and they know it. The army are notoriously loth to take on the settlers, either out of fear or - more likely - for political reasons, and on top of that the settlers themselves are vastly superior in terms of mobilising their own forces, as well as their zealous commitment to their cause.
Out at dinner on Friday night, my English-born host told me how glad he was to have moved to Israel, if only for the pleasure of raising children truly passionate about their homeland and its politics. He decried the apathy of the young Londoners he meets, claiming they care only about feathering their own nests rather than having a wider sense of purpose, such as social action and fighting for justice for the wider community.
In Israel, he said, it's very different - from an early age, children begin to care far more about their country and the never-ending conflict, eventually becoming committed advocates at one end or the other of the political spectrum. While I don't think it's as black and white as he makes out, as I've found out for myself several times, he does have a point - at least where the settler youth are concerned.
Whilst I detest the politics of those like Yedidia, one of the teenagers interviewed for the Newsnight feature, I am nevertheless in awe of the dedication and commitment with which he and his fellow settlers go about their task. Physical discomforts such as sleeping rough in tents on bleak, windswept hillsides mean nothing to them; neither does the threat of confrontation with the army, local Palestinians or left-wing activists like Kobi Snitz. Fired up by a heady concoction of religious fervour and nationalist belief, they remain unflinchingly resolute in their mission to conquer as much land as possible on behalf of the Jewish people.
"God gave us this land; we do what God says - so we're here", said Yedidia nonchalantly with a shrug of his shoulders. And that's the crux of the matter when it comes to the disparity between the actions of those on the right and left wings in Israel. Religious fundamentalism is a powerful opiate wherever it flourishes, from the madrasas of Pakistan, to the hilltops of Judea, and beyond - and if there's to be a true challenge to the likes of Yedidia and his friends, then the same fervour must be recreated by those opposed to their actions.
Enthusiastic though I was to play a part in the evacuation of Homesh during the Disengagement, my passion was more than matched by the scores of protesters who dragged themselves up the mountainside in the dead of night to disrupt our platoon's task and show solidarity with the evictees. Two years later, I witnessed the march to "retake" Homesh by hundreds of settler youths, at once marvelling at their dedication and despairing that similar numbers are rarely mobilised by those on the left.
My shelves heave with dozens of reports and studies done by NGOs and activist groups who continually compile condemnations of the Israeli government's misdeeds in sanctioning the settlement enterprise. However, whilst the scribes fiddle, Rome is burning - the flames fanned ever higher by Yedidia and his friends, who couldn't care less about the glossy pamphlets that criticise their endeavours.
Actions speak far, far louder than words in terms of creating facts on the ground in the West Bank. While Kobi's group's attempts to stand up to the marauding settlers is admirable, unless they have the numbers and the commitment behind them, they'll be doomed to fail every time, as they did last week. And in the absence of the authorities making any meaningful attempt to hold back the settler tide, it falls on the left wing activists to step up to the plate and prove their commitment to justice. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and unless they take it up, then there's little point complaining when the settlers go marching ever onwards.