Briefs: West Bank withdrawals coming, Peres says; Israel wants U.S. to stay the course on P.A.

West Bank withdrawals coming, Peres says

Israel plans to remove some West Bank settlements according to Shimon Peres.

The Israeli vice premier said Saturday that, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan to “realign” the West Bank deployment was shelved after last year’s Lebanon war, settlement evacuations are still on the agenda.

“Yes, settlements will be removed — not all the settlements, and I’m not even sure most of the settlements,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 television, adding that the number of communities evacuated could be in the dozens. “I think that a serious effort will be made to do that which we undertook to do, which is removing settlements.” Peres said the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority could affect the scale and pace of the withdrawals by accepting peace talks with Israel.

Israel wants U.S. to stay the course on P.A.

Israel is trying to shore up U.S. objections to the planned Palestinian Authority coalition government. Top aides of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled Sunday to Washington, where they will urge Bush administration officials not to yield to European calls to engage the Hamas-Fatah unity government when it is formed.

The Palestinian Authority power-sharing pact, which was signed in Saudi Arabia last month, contains a vague reference to “respecting” past peace deals with Israel, falling short of Western demands that the Hamas-led government recognize the Jewish state and renounce terrorism. But Israel believes that some European nations are wavering for fear that the Palestinian Authority’s continued isolation will harm its president, Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and a perceived moderate.

Separately, U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey was in Israel on Sunday for talks with local officials on the effect of the Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority, and whether such measures could also be applied against Iran’s nuclear program.

Jordan’s King Abdullah wants more U.S. involvement

Jordan’s King Abdullah said the United States was not balanced in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

“It is our duty to push this great nation, and others, to take balanced positions and support the peace process,” Abdullah told Jordanian television in a weekend interview ahead of a trip to the United States. He said Washington should use its influence on Israel “to prove its transparency to the peoples of the region, and that it is not biased.”

Abdullah, whose pro-Western country is considered an important regional broker, suggested that Israel was not displaying sincerity in its efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

“The main responsibility lies with Israel, which must choose either to remain a prisoner of the mentality of ‘Israel the fortress’ or to live in peace and stability with its neighbors,” he said.

Hungarian political unrest spurs anti-Semitism

Hungary’s leader warned of rising anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said in an interview published over the weekend that the hatred of Jews in Hungary has reached new heights since a wave of anti-government protests last year.

“I have to say that there have never been so many anti-Semitic remarks as now,” Gyurcsany told Britain’s Times newspaper.

Hungary’s left-leaning government was disgraced in September after it was revealed to have lied about the economy in order to win the previous election. Gyurcsany said that during the resulting demonstrations, protesters tried to blame Jewish politicians, apparently with the encouragement of right-wing opposition members.

“There is something horrible happening,” said Gyurcsany, whose wife is of Jewish descent.

Hadassah receives $75 million for Jerusalem hospital

Hadassah received a $75 million contribution for a new inpatient tower at its Jerusalem hospital. William and Karen Davidson gave the gift on behalf of Guardian Industries Corp. of Auburn Hills, Mich., of which William Davidson is president. Hadassah will name the new facility at the Hadassah Medical Center the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower in memory of William Davidson’s mother, who was a founder of the organization’s Detroit chapter.

“The power of family is truly a binding one, and I feel privileged to be the third generation to support Hadassah’s goals and achievements,” Davidson said in a statement.

Davidson, who owns several sports teams, including the Detroit Pistons, said he was impressed by the way Hadassah treats patients of all religions and backgrounds. The $210 million inpatient tower will be a 14-story structure with 500 beds, 20 state-of-the-art operating rooms and 50 intensive-care beds. The tower is expected to boost Hadassah’s capabilities in many fields, such as cardiology, telemedicine and laparoscopic surgery, and will facilitate the use of advanced robotics and computers.

Minister denies war crimes allegations

An Israeli Cabinet minister denied Egyptian accusations that he was involved in the killing of Egyptian prisoners of war.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a retired army general, said Sunday that his record during the 1967 war with Egypt was spotless. His comments came after some of his former subordinates said in an Israeli documentary that they had killed Egyptian prisoners, a claim that was picked up by the official Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram and prompted calls in the Egyptian Parliament for Ben-Eliezer to be tried for war crimes.

“The commandos under me did not kill Egyptian soldiers,” Ben-Eliezer, who is due to visit Egypt later this week, told Yediot Achronot.

“When the commandos encountered POWs from an Egyptian battalion, they gave them food and water.”

RJC launches anti-Reform Iraq resolution

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) launched an effort opposing the Reform movement’s call for withdrawal from Iraq.

“If you or someone you know is a member of the Reform movement, you should know that the movement’s leadership is pushing the Executive Committee of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Board of Trustees to adopt a dangerous and wrongheaded resolution opposing the U.S. efforts in Iraq,” the RJC said in an action alert sent out this week.

It urged RJC members who belong to Reform synagogues to register their protests locally and nationally. “RJC will continue to speak out on this and make it clear that the Union for Reform Judaism does not speak for all Reform Jews or all Jews in general,” the RJC said.

IFF: Engaging in disengagement — five horrible days in Gaza

One of the first news stories I covered in Jerusalem 10 years ago was the excavation of holy artifacts by the city. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were protesting the excavations, because they said they were disturbing ancient Jewish graves upon which the entire city was built. It was a common problem and even an old news story in Israel, but it was the first time I witnessed it.

Pairs of police officers picked up Chasidim lying down in front of the bulldozers, carrying each bearded, black-coated man by the shoulders and feet to a waiting van. As the men were carted past me — struggling, kicking, shouting, even calling me names — tears came to my eyes. I tried to mask them, furiously writing notes.

“Is this your first time here?” the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority said, more as a statement than a question. He offered me a tissue.

“It’s hard to watch,” he said.

It was true. The sight of men in uniform dragging religious Jews away provokes a visceral reaction in any Jew: nausea, cramps, tears. It evokes the images of the Holocaust, no matter how dissimilar the situation may be.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so heart-wrenching to watch the handful of new documentaries covering “the disengagement,” as the unilateral evacuation of 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip was called, when men and women in uniform marched in to confront, corral and drag away the (mostly religious) settlers. No matter that the uniformed people were Jews, and they weren’t taking the settlers to their death but busing them to within Israeli territory. Still the shadows of the Holocaust haunt.

Especially from the perspective of the settlers, who primarily believe their mission — to settle the Land of Israel and serve as a buffer zone to protect the rest of Israel from destruction — is a direct response to the horrors of the Holocaust. That is why they are not willing to leave — or be forced from their homes, and that is why, for many, it is worse that the people in uniform are Jews.

“If you’re a Jew, you can’t do this!” one of the settlers screams at the police in “Storm of Emotions,” one of the two new disengagement documentaries showing at the 22nd Israel Film Festival.

“You look like Nazis!” a woman shouts.

“You obey orders fanatically. You think we’re fanatics. You’re order fanatics,” another says, again evoking the famous German soldier’s defense of, “We were just following orders.”

But following government orders is what the police and soldiers are doing in Gush Katif, the bloc of 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Some police don’t believe in the evacuation, some don’t want to be the ones to evacuate the settlers. Even for those who believe it is the right thing to do — because they are tired of risking their lives for such a small percentage of the population, or because they think it will bring about peace, or because they don’t want Gaza to be part of Israel — the actual evacuation is a horrible experience.

“Storm of Emotions” is a small picture — insider, even — portraying the evacuation from the perspective of the police, who helped the Israel Defense Forces implement the disengagement. The film zeroes in on a few officers (the most interesting is a kippah-wearing Modern Orthodox officer who believes he can ameliorate the situation of his co-religionists but suffers the most slings and arrows of the settlers) and attempts to portray their plight: how they tried to be as gentle as possible, tried to prevent eruptions of violence and tried to evacuate Gush Katif peaceably.

The vérité, television-like “Storm,” which was short-listed in the Oscar’s documentary feature category, offers a narrow window on the disengagement that sometimes lacks wider context.

“Withdrawal From Gaza,” however, presents a fuller picture with broader historical overview. “Withdrawal,” also showing at the Israel Film Festival and starting March 23 at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino, is a more polished, feature-like documentary that tells the poignant stories of the settlers — a doctor, zookeeper, terror victim’s widow, American amputee — shows the stunning and idyllic beauty of Gush Katif beachfront, in addition to providing numbers and facts.

Fact: It was pre-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who decided to settle Gaza in 1967, but as prime minister ordered its evacuation.

Fact: Many of the residents of Gush Katif came from Yamit, the seaport settlement in the southern Gaza Strip that was evacuated in 1982, when Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt.

Fact: By 2005 8,500 settlers lived in Gush Katif, and half left before the evacuation, but another 4,000 came down to support settlers, enacting civil disobedience that led to what might be called the five worst days in Israel’s history.

In the hindsight of 18 months, it may seem that the disengagement was always a fait accompli from the moment it was decreed, but what these new disengagement documentaries show is that history is not so simple. (In addition to “Storm” and “Withdrawal,” two others Gaza docs received international attention: “Five Days” was boycotted at Edinburgh’s festival last summer, because of the war in Lebanon, and “Unsettled,” a slick, MTV-like documentary following 20-somethings on both sides, won this year’s jury prize at Sundance.)

The documentaries remind us — even such a short while later — that despite the results, in the beginning nothing was cut and dried.

For one thing, the settlers did not believe for a moment they would ever have to leave.

“It’s my hope that we’ll stay here,” the religious zookeeper says in “Withdrawal.” “We’re still waiting for a last-minute miracle.”

All the films have the requisite shots of the man in the tallit and tefillin praying on the hills; the women in kerchiefs with their eyes closed, swaying; the groups of teens dancing and singing. It’s an awesome — some might say foolish — collective faith that the edict would never come to pass.

The settlers believed they could prevent evacuation. Even without a miracle from God — one which they prayed for vehemently — they believed in their physical powers: They held sit-ins at synagogues, stood behind barbed-wire on rooftops and linked hands to become human chains in the streets. Together with West Bank settlers clad in orange (color for opposing disengagement), many stood their ground until the end, refusing to walk on the bus, forcing soldiers to drag them there.