TEL AVIV | Jewish settlers have escalated demonstrations in Jerusalem and the West Bank over the past week to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement freeze. But amid the confrontation, settlers acknowledge that their ranks are split.
While leaders of settlers groups have been calling for peaceful protests and lobbying, a growing number of members, especially from the younger generations, have been pressing for more drastic actions.
Palestinian homes and mosques have been attacked and defaced with pro-settlement graffiti. A fringe movement of settlers led by activist rabbis also have been appealing to Israeli soldiers and reservists to defy orders to enforce the freeze.
Mr. Netanyahu, a longtime supporter of the Israeli settlements, announced a 10-month freeze on some construction on Nov. 25 in a gesture to Washington to help restart peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu subsequently clarified that it was only a one-time measure, drawing Palestinian rejection of the proposal, but the settlers saw it as a first opening to an eventual eviction.
The mainstream settler leadership - the Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza - is still blamed for not blocking Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and is trying now to refurbish its image by showing Israel’s government that the freeze on the West Bank and Jerusalem would not be accepted quietly.
The eviction of residents from 17 settlements in Gaza known as Gush Katif (“Harvest Bloc”) in 2005 is a watershed moment in the settlers’ fight.
“The [settler] leadership after Gush Katif is not an accepted leadership,” said Yisrael Harel, a resident of the settlement of Ofra who once headed the settlers council and now is a columnist for Ha’aretz. “In some places, it is not a legitimate leadership because they collaborated in the evacuation of Gush Katif.”
Though some building inspectors enforcing the new freeze were blocked by demonstrators in keeping with a call of the settler leadership, the majority of settlements did not heed the settlers council’s call for civil disobedience.
Shaul Goldstein, a member of the settlers council, said most settlers were too “moderate” to take off from jobs to attend protests, even though Mr. Netanyahu’s freeze “means that life might stop.”
Mr. Goldstein and his colleagues are grappling with a younger generation of settlers, many of whom live in the hilltop outposts and see their parents as too bourgeois and too conciliatory toward the Israeli mainstream, Mr. Harel said.
Many in that younger generation are more skeptical of the political lobbying favored by the settlers council and are more apt to support civil disobedience, such as efforts to reoccupy settlements abandoned in 2005 and sit-ins at road junctions.
They are influenced by rabbinical authorities who place strict interpretations of Jewish religious law over Israel’s secular government.
Though the settlers council rallied 15,000 supporters in Jerusalem this past week to protest Mr. Netanyahu, activist Boaz Ha’etzni said the effort was misplaced.
“It’s not leading in the right direction. Demonstrating in Jerusalem wastes the energy of people and money on nothing,” said Mr. Ha’etzni, a frequent critic of the settlers council and a leader of a group of protesters who seek to reoccupy abandoned settlements.
“[The settlers council] isn’t built for struggle. It’s built for protest. Jerusalem is a protest. Building in the field is a struggle.”
The younger generation of settlers is also more apt to follow the edicts of a minority of settler rabbis who openly encourage soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements. Mr. Ha’etzni said a proposal for settlers to boycott reserve duty during Mr. Netanyahu’s 10-month freeze made sense, while the mainstream settlers leaders have rejected such a move.
“We have a feeling that this [building freeze] won’t stop in 10 months, that it will snowball,” Sraya Demsky, a 31-year-old reservist from the hilltop settlement of Elon Moreh, told the Associated Press.
The father of four said he believes God’s authority supersedes the army’s and would not take action against fellow settlers.
“I wouldn’t do it,” he said.
The military recently punished six soldiers for refusing to take part in the demolition of two unauthorized settler houses in the West Bank. The ringleaders were educated in Elon Moreh’s yeshiva, or seminary, the AP reported.
Matan Vilnai, the deputy defense minister, recently met with Eliezer Melamed, a settler rabbi who has supported insubordination, and threatened to cut off his seminary’s funding if he did not publicly recant, the AP said.
There is also a more radical group that favors vigilantism. On Friday, Israeli and Palestinian authorities accused extremist settlers of torching and vandalizing a mosque in a Palestinian village near Nablus. Graffiti sprayed in the mosque, reading “Price Tag, Greetings from Effi,” suggested the attack was retaliation for the settlement freeze. Settler extremists refer to such attacks as the “price tag” policy. Effi is a Hebrew name.
A spokesman for the settlements in the northern West Bank said the accusations were based on circumstantial evidence.
Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, the head of a military-affiliated yeshiva and a resident of the settlement of Efrat, said the tactics and the rhetoric of the settlers leaders are becoming more and more extreme.
“The power the extreme groups have in their hands is more and more effective. To be moderate is dangerous. You are attacked verbally,” he said. “More and more leaders are afraid to speak differently.”