Groundwork Laid to Evacuate Gaza


Despite political hurdles, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is forging ahead with his Gaza disengagement plan, giving various government agencies the green light to prepare for the evacuation of settlers — using both carrots and sticks.

Even as Israeli police begin laying the groundwork for evacuating Gaza, an interministerial team of some 70 officials is working out details of a bill to compensate evacuees in hopes that the prospect of money and alternate housing will help avert a violent confrontation between settlers and police.

Despite police objections — "no budget, no manpower" — the Cabinet decided that Israeli police would perform the actual evacuation.

Tzachi Hanegbi, who recently resigned as minister of internal security, wanted the army to do the job, as it did in the evacuation of Yamit in northern Sinai 22 years ago. But most ministers preferred to spare young soldiers the experience of a potentially violent confrontation with Jewish citizens.

So police have begun making necessary preparations. Step one: allocating the funds.

Not only will the government need to pay generous compensation to evacuated settlers — about $400 million — the actual process of evacuation will require substantial funds. Police Inspector General Moshe Karadi met Sept. 5 with senior officers to assess the costs involved.

The cost of the evacuation will depend on the scope of resistance, both in Gaza and in Israel proper. No one knows for sure how many people will actively resist the evacuation, or over what period of time. Therefore it’s not only a matter of budget but of recruiting the necessary manpower.

It’s assumed that large police forces will be kept busy not only in the Gaza Strip but also within Israel, dealing with demonstrations against the disengagement.

Police were planning to set up an "evacuation administration" comprising two arms, one responsible for planning the evacuation and the other for carrying it out. The Border Police, which usually is deployed in the territories to deal with the Palestinian population, has been selected to evacuate the settlers.

The Border Police plans to reinforce its 12 companies with an additional 20 reserve companies, which will free up regular forces to cope with the evacuation.

Sharon hopes to create sufficient motivation among settlers to evacuate their homes willingly in exchange for generous compensation packages, avoiding violent confrontations like those in Yamit.

An interministerial team is working out details of the compensation bill. The general idea is to offer settlers a house in exchange for a house; they also will be given the option of relocating en masse to communities in Israel.

Government assessors were instructed to appraise the houses according to equivalents in regions that are better off than development towns, but not as upscale as Tel Aviv.

The evacuation administration already has proposed advance payments that would be deducted from final compensations, but advances can’t be handed out until the complicated legal procedure behind them is finalized.

The government will commit itself to paying out the full value of compensation packages even if the disengagement plan eventually collapses. Settlers also will receive special compensation worth six months’ salary to find alternative employment.

Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Gush Katif settlement bloc, insisted in an interview with JTA that only a handful of families have expressed interest in entering negotiations on compensation.

"We regard this entire talk on compensations as psychological warfare," Sternberg said. "Sharon in his desperation shoots in all directions."

The overarching imperative in preparing for the evacuation is to avoid civil war. Policemen in the evacuation task force will undergo special psychological seminars, preparing them for confrontation with their "brothers."

When will all this take place? Sharon recently told his Likud Party’s Knesset faction that he did not intend to "drag out the disengagement plan over a long period of time."

He has presented the following timetable for the disengagement:

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• By Sept. 14, the prime minister will present the Cabinet a blueprint for evacuation and compensation of the settlers.

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• By Sept. 26, a draft disengagement bill will be presented to the Cabinet.

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• By Oct. 24, the financial compensation bill will be brought to the Cabinet.

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• On Nov. 3, the compensation bill — "The Law for Implementing the Disengagement Plan" — will be brought to the Knesset.

It’s assumed that the actual evacuation would take place no later than February 2005.

After Likud voters rejected Sharon’s disengagement plan in a May 2 party referendum, and following the impressive human chain protest of some 130,000 people in late July, settlers now are planning additional anti-disengagement campaigns, including an upcoming massive protest in downtown Jerusalem.

"Over 3,000 children and youths began the school year this week at our schools," Sternberg said. "I’m sure we will all be there to open the next school year."

Settlers Threaten to Resist Withdrawal


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces a new obstacle to his plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank: right-wing rabbis who have ruled that dismantling settlements contravenes Jewish law. The rabbis are calling on soldiers to disobey orders and on settlers to forcibly resist evacuation.

Given the potential for confrontation, the army and police are training special forces to carry out the evacuation, and there is even talk of building detention camps for settlers in case of mass resistance.

The Israeli right wing is split on the issue, and left-wing politicians are warning the rabbis against creating conditions like those preceding the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when some settler rabbis made religious rulings that seemed to condone violence against the prime minister.

No evacuation is scheduled to take place until next year, but the mood on both sides already is tense. In its worst-case scenarios, the defense establishment is not ruling out that some settlers will use guns against Israeli troops, and some legislators have warned settler leaders against following a path that could lead to "civil war."

The latest rabbinical ruling came from a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Avraham Shapira, now head of the Rabbis’ Union for the Complete Land of Israel and one of the National Religious Party’s most influential spiritual leaders.

In answer to a question from a follower, Shapira came out unequivocally against any evacuation of Jewish settlers in Gaza. "It is clear and obvious that, according to the Torah, handing over parts of our holy land to non-Jews, including parts of Gush Katif, is a sin and a crime," Shapira wrote, referring to one bloc of Gaza settlements.

"Therefore, any thought or idea or decision or any semblance of action of any kind to evacuate residents from Gush Katif and hand the land over to non-Jews is opposed to halacha," or Jewish religious law, he wrote. "Therefore, nothing must be done to assist the eviction from their homes and land, and everything done to prevent it."

Shapira’s call followed a similar ruling by the Yesha rabbinical council, which declared that "no man, citizen, police officer or soldier is authorized to help in uprooting settlements."

Not only the rabbis are taking a militant stand. In a mid-June interview with a national religious publication, Uri Elitzur, editor of the settler journal, Nekuda, declared that "the uprooting of a settlement is illegal and shocking and therefore justifies refusal to obey orders and violence, excluding the use of firearms."

Elitzur added that he would grant his "complete understanding to people who harm those who come to evacuate them."

Coming from a man who served as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau chief and who ran the National Religious Party’s last election campaign, sympathy for violent opposition sent shockwaves through the political system.

Peace Now and legislator Avshalom Vilan of the Yahad-Meretz Party urged Israel’s attorney general to prosecute Elitzur for incitement to violence.

Ilan Leibovich of the Shinui Party told Israel Radio that "Uri Elitzur has lost his mind and must be stopped immediately before he starts a civil war."

Even Social Affairs Minister Zevulun Orlev, leader of the National Religious Party’s more moderate wing, dissociated himself from Elitzur, insisting that Elitzur doesn’t reflect the position of the national religious movement.

On the contrary, Orlev said, "we distance ourselves from any threat of civil war and bloodshed, as from fire."

What happens on the ground could depend to some extent on the National Religious Party’s leadership. But the party’s two senior figures, Orlev and party leader Effi Eitam, are sending out mixed signals.

Eitam resigned from the government over Sharon’s plan to evacuate settlements, while Orlev stayed on. Moreover, Eitam is championing legislation to bar the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from participating in the evacuation of settlements, while Orlev says the government has the right to use the army as it pleases.

In marked contrast to Eitam, who says soldiers from Orthodox or settler families would face an impossible dilemma if ordered to evacuate other settlers or even their own families, Orlev insists that "the IDF must carry out government orders without reference to the political beliefs of its soldiers. If it starts choosing assignments according to political beliefs, that would constitute an existential threat to the State of Israel."

The question is to what extent will settlers take their cue from National Religious Party leaders, and whether they will heed the moderates in their own leadership.

Bentzion Lieberman, chairman of the Yesha settlers’ council, echoed Orlev when he said that "uprooting settlements and expelling Jews is a historical and moral crime, but refusing to obey an order is an existential threat to the State of Israel."

But will settlers listen to Lieberman or to the radical rabbis? And what about settler extremists who, even if a minority, are bound to oppose evacuation with violence and create considerable mayhem?

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz estimates that thousands of settlers will resist evacuation forcibly, and the IDF is taking into account the possibility that settlers will use firearms.

The army and police both are training special forces to deal with expected settler resistance. The plan at present is for the soldiers to cut off the areas being evacuated and for the police to do the actual evacuating. A team planning the evacuation, led by Sharon’s national security adviser, Giora Eiland, even is considering building detention centers for settler resisters who break the law.

A decision on the first evacuations is scheduled for March. As the date approaches, signs are that the clash between government and settlers will go beyond anything seen in Israel until now.

To avert this, voices of reason and conciliation will have to come to the fore. But for the time being, it’s the radicals who are getting louder by the day.

Fine-Tuning


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s impending visit to Israel could be a win-win for the governor, the Los Angeles Jewish community and for Israel, but first some fine-tuning is in order.

As we reported last week, the governor is scheduled to travel to Jerusalem May 2 to participate in groundbreaking ceremonies there for the $150 million Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance.

But as soon as reports circulated that the visit was on, eyebrows started shooting skyward. By the middle of this week, it looked like the governor’s trip to the Land of Milk and Honey was going to include a side order of sour grapes.

Why, asked some local Jews, did such a high-profile visit seem to exclude representation of a wider swath of the California Jewish community? Why should one Jewish organization take up the bulk of the governor’s agenda? Why was a trip by a politician not organized first through the normal political channels?

"He’s not some star popping in to help out some friends," said one local activist, clearly disgruntled. "He’s the governor of the State of California visiting the State of Israel." (This trip is privately funded, and does not use taxpayers’ money.)

Some of the concerns found their way into a March 24 Los Angeles Times article about the trip. The story, with its implication that the trip was stepping on toes and upsetting protocol, infuriated some Wiesenthal Center supporters.

"I don’t get it," one of them told me. "Here this popular governor is going to Israel at a time when Israel really needs all the friends it can get, and people are turning it into an issue. I’ve had it with the Jews."

You know emotions are running hot when Museum of Tolerance supporters start getting anti-Semitic.

But, exasperated joking aside, the Jerusalem brouhaha does threaten to mar what can be a flat-out success for all parties. So far, the mess is hardly anything that the governor’s office can’t quickly clean up. One experienced local pol — not Jewish — observed the dust-up with dispassion: "Arnold has a mix of politically experienced and politically inexperienced people on his payroll," he said.

When it comes to little things like visits to foreign countries, experience helps.

Simon Wiesenthal Center dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, who initiated the Jerusalem museum project, said he just can’t comprehend some of the reports and rumors that are circulating about the visit.

Most disturbing is the idea that the visit is some kind of quid pro quo. In the heat of the bitter recall campaign that put Schwarzenegger in office, Hier reiterated the results of a Wiesenthal Center investigation that cleared the Austrian-born governor’s late father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, of involvement in any World War II-era war crimes.

If the trip is seen as payback, it demeans both the governor and the center. "Quid pro quo applies when you don’t know a person," Hier told me by phone. "I’ve known the governor for 20 years. He has had cocktail parties and parlor meetings for us. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to us and raised millions. He has participated in events of much less importance than [the groundbreaking], so it would be unusual if he didn’t participate in this."

Furthermore, Hier added, the center released all records it found pertaining to Schwarzenegger’s father to the media for public review.

The idea for trip is a year and a half old, Hier said. Schwarzenegger attended a parlor meeting in Miami for the Jerusalem museum long before his run for governor. At that meeting, Schwarzenegger promised to attend.

"He said, ‘You don’t have to tell me I’m going, I’m going,’" Hier said.

There has not been any indication that the recent State Department travel advisory against Israel and the prospect of violence in the wake of the assassination of Shiekh Ahmed Yassin will deter the governor. A spokesperson at the governor’s office said that trip was still in the planning stages, as are responses to security concerns.

"Everything is still being determined," the spokesperson said.

As to whether the Wiesenthal Center should have made sure to bring Israelis and local Jewish leaders in on the trip, Hier said he could only take responsibility for the part of the visit that concerned the groundbreaking ceremony and a Museum of Tolerance fundraising dinner that the governor was scheduled to attend. (The governor’s office would not confirm his attendance at the latter event.)

"I assume he has other components to his trip," Hier said. "We’ve always known he was going to do other things."

All official visits by governors include a meeting with the prime minister — true whether the governor is from California or Kansas — and a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum. (The Museum of Tolerance, which is being designed by Frank Gehry, will have no Holocaust-related exhibit.)

"My interest is that the governor is going to have an official, formal element to his visit to Israel," Israel Consul General Yuval Rotem said. The governor’s office said an itinerary is still in formation, and its release is two to three weeks off.

"Of course that should take place," said Hier, referring to a meeting between Schwarzenegger and the prime minister, "but I’m not involved in that."

Including other community leaders in the festivities surrounding the groundbreaking was not an option, Hier said. Invitees are people whom the center hopes will contribute toward the $200 million price tag of the museum and its endowment. So far, the center has raised $75 million for the project.

"On this occasion the shoe didn’t fit," Hier said. "We’re looking for prospects."

It’s no secret that a dram or two of bad blood has flowed between the Wiesenthal Center and some quarters of the community ever since Hier established the center and the museum here. As the center has become more of a presence in Jewish Los Angeles — many in the media see it as the major Jewish presence here — Hier and other Jewish leaders have worked to forge warmer bonds. Indeed, not everyone is ticked. "I think it’s fine," said Mel Levine, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of The Jewish Federation, regarding the trip. Levine, himself a former congressman, did not think a promise made as a private citizen should necessarily be negated once in public service.

"The governor, long before he was governor, was a supporter of the Museum of Tolerance here," he said, "and I believe it’s good whenever public officials go to Israel."

Officially, then, many community leaders are adopting a far-from-antagonistic approach to the visit. They want the governor, in the words of one activist, to see that "there’s more to the Jewish community than Marvin Hier," but they also don’t want to create any ill will so early in the administration. That makes sense. There are just too many important communal issues — poverty relief, medical funding, homeland security, to name a few — that rate higher on the agenda than this visit.

They also understand that, to borrow from the season we’re fast approaching, this governor is different from all other governors. "He doesn’t see himself as a politician," said the local pol, "and so far people don’t see him as one." Just as Schwarzenegger’s campaign circumvented normal channels of campaigning, so too his governance can bend the rules.

But as the governor moves forward, it must be with an understanding that as good a friend as he has in Hier, he has the potential to make many more in the Jewish community.