By Meron Rapoport
The cold helped me in Amona. Early Wednesday morning, with a colorful woolen cap on my head, I apparently looked like one of the thousands of religious
youths on the cold West Bank hilltop. Perhaps it was due to the caps that the 15-year-old boy standing at the entrance to Amona didn’t bother to check
my press pass, as he did when I entered 24 hours earlier, as though I were entering a security complex and not an illegal outpost situated on private Palestinian
Perhaps it was due to the caps that young people wandering around the outpost looking for some action would occasionally ask me: “Tell me, do you know where
the soldiers of the evil army are, where the soldiers of the expulsion army are?” Of course, I was supposed to understand that they were talking about
Israel Defense Forces soldiers. At last, one of the organizers came over, megaphone in hand, and asked me who I was. A Haaretz reporter, I responded.
“What do you think will happen here?” I asked after showing him my press pass. What you want to happen won’t happen, he said – there won’t be any violence
In the end, what everyone knew would happen did: Violence, and a lot of it. There was no need for predictions: It was enough to visit Amona 24 hours before
the evacuation. Hundreds of young people gathered around the nine stone houses, built barricades from interlocking bricks, used crowbars to dig out rocks
from the hilly ground and arranged them in piles. One youth walked by us with a tire around his neck, on his way to one of the buildings. His friends helped
him lift it onto the roof. Three more young people came by, carrying heavy coils of barbed wire, on their way to setting them up on one of the rooftops.
From one roof, protesters lowered ropes that were then tied to cinder blocks; they brought the cinder blocks up and stacked them on the roof’s edge, near
the tires. It was clear that the blocks would ultimately be thrown at the heads of police officers who would come to evacuate them. And that indeed happened.
It’s easy to say that what happened on Wednesday was a show, and such a statement has some truth to it. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – as the youth
and adults in Amona repeatedly said with a certain degree of accuracy – needed a confrontation to showcase his power over the most hated population in
Israel today, the settlers. This may explain the fact that although on Tuesday the news reports said that the police were preventing buses of anti-evacuation
supporters from reaching Amona, we saw quite a few buses on Route 60, on the way to the nearby settlement of Ofra, that were going to “reinforce” the outpost.
There was organized transport to the outpost from the center of Ofra. No one tried to prevent this, just as no one prevented the young people from lifting
cinderblocks onto the rooftops.
The settlement leaders were also in need of violence. “I can’t deny that we took advantage of the youth,” a senior figure in the Yesha Council of settlements
told me. The Yesha Council secretary general, Bentzi Lieberman, said a few weeks ago that if Amona goes down without a fight, the headlines will be “The
settlers gave up.”
“A struggle shows a spark of life,” said Lieberman. Sure enough, Lieberman got the struggle he asked for. But something happened that was more than a game.
If the evacuation of Gush Katif represents the disengagement – to a degree – of the State of Israel from the settlers, then Amona represents the disengagement
of the settlers from the State of Israel.
Avi Gisser, the rabbi of Amona’s mother settlement, Ofra, said that what happened on the exposed hilltop was a “loss of the old leadership,” which is no
longer capable of standing up against the young people’s “anarchistic struggle.” Gisser saw how the people in Amona attacked and nearly kicked out Pinchas
Wallerstein, head of the Binyamin regional council and one of the people who invented and improved upon the approach of establishing illegal outposts.
“The Yesha leaders let the Amona secretariat run things, because after Gush Katif their authority was questioned,” said Gisser. “Amona is the price the
Yesha Council paid for the loss of Gush Katif.”
I met with Gisser on Tuesday morning, in his office in the Ofra secretariat. Outside in the small square were gathered youngsters who had come from across
the country and slept in tents – boys and girls separately – or in public institutions before being taken up to the hilltop, to the struggle for Amona.
In our conversation, Gisser sang the praises of this youth, expressed pride over their “ideological integrity” and dedication. “I love them, they’re my
children,” said Gisser, who has served for many years as head of the exclusive girls’ seminary in Ofra. But it’s clear to him that something not good is
happening with the young generation of religious Zionism. Among the youth in the settlements, he said, there is essentially a “new ultra-Orthodox society”
arising that does not view the state as sacred. In effect, said Gisser, it has already become impossible to define this society as religious Zionist. It’s
already not Zionist.
It isn’t simple for a man like Gisser to say things like this. He is Religious Zionism. True, he’s not a member of the Yesha rabbinical council, but he
is certainly considered one of the more influential rabbis among mainstream settlers. Since September of last year, Gisser has served as head of a nearly
autonomous body within the Education Ministry that supervises government-religious education. If such a person feels that the “key concept” among settlement
youth is the ultra-Orthodox model, which turns its back on Zionism and the state, it’s a sign that something has changed on a very deep level.
In a telephone call 24 hours after our initial conversation, once the Amona evacuation had taken place, Gisser made even harsher comments about those same
beloved young people. Of course, he condemned the police violence, “the horses that broke through the crowd so as to trample,” but also he had a very hard
time with what his youngsters did in Amona. “If you think that they see the result of what happened today as negative, you’re wrong, that’s not at all
the case,” he said. “They imagined there would be blows and difficulties. They think that’s how it has to be.”
I first met Gisser about three years ago, slightly before Operation Defensive Shield, at the height of the terror attacks. At that point, he said the terror
attacks actually strengthen the faith of the settler youth and also strengthen the connection between the Israeli public and the settlements. Today he
feels that the picture has changed drastically.
“For Israeli society, the conflict [with the Palestinians] and the price we pay for it has become intolerable,” he said. “For 100 years the agenda of society
here has been belligerent, combative. The Israeli public wants a different agenda, a civil one. The old world has collapsed. Today the three largest parties
are talking about two states for two peoples. Twenty years ago that was the mantra of the New Communist List” (today part of Hadash).
Like many of the settlement leaders, Gisser said the settlers’ mistake was that they did not present a political plan of their own. “We did not submit to
the people of Israel a sufficiently realistic political plan, because we found it emotionally difficult to mark borders in the heart of the land of our
forefathers, in the heart of the religious, idealistic and Zionist destination,” he said. “This is a weakness, because sometimes you have to carry out
a painful operation to save the life of a seriously wounded person.”
So you agree with the concept of ‘painful concessions,’ and the question is only where they will be?
“I always knew that a realistic political plan would include the marking of borders, and that’s why I was deterred from it. It stood and stands in opposition
to our ideological being. I see it as very bad, but if you have to choose between utter destruction of the settlements and leaving some of them, I will
certainly choose the lesser evil. The problem is that if in the past a department of the IDF had drafted a map for an agreement and submitted it to the
decision-maker, the decision-maker would have said, ‘Lord almighty, there are settlements there.’ Today the decision-maker says, ‘Dammit, there are settlements
there.’ The argument I used to have with Hahomer Hatzair [a left-wing Zionist youth group] was the opposite. They told me, ‘Lord almighty, there are Palestinians
there.’ We said, ‘Dammit, there are Palestinians there.’ Now it’s reversing. The fact that we will need to set a border will make us frustrated, give us
a feeling of failure. That’s why in Gush Katif we said ‘the eternal people isn’t afraid of a long path.’ That’s the basis of faith: If in the past we reinforced
the success motif, now we are reinforcing the motif of the road.”
On the Amona hilltop it was possible to feel that the sensation of success that accompanied the settlement enterprise has been lost. There was quite a lot
of despair there. If in the former Gaza settlement of Neveh Dekalim people believed until the last moment that it was possible to prevent the evacuation,
in Amona no one had the illusion that he could succeed in preventing the houses from being demolished. At most they could hope, as they shouted through
the megaphones, that “this time we are halting the momentum of the wicked government.”
It was a struggle for the sake of a struggle, which led to quite a few disagreements among the youth. One, who said he had completed his army service, said
the soldiers were “coming to kill us” and that he therefore wanted to see that “their blood is spilt.” There was no agreement among the others who gathered
around him, but there were also no reservations. The only one who spoke out against him was a girl who fervently explained that it’s an honor to belong
to the people of Israel and therefore we, the settlers, must not think we are better than others. Afterward, in another sign of the increasing isolation,
they began arguing about how we, the settlers, should behave when we visit “their cities” – that is, Tel Aviv.
“I feel a crisis,” said Gisser as he attempted to analyze the influence Gush Katif has had on the settlement youth. “The crisis is primarily in the spiritual
realm. We really and truly believed that walking devotedly on a good path would lead us to the destination. It’s like the crisis of the girls who prayed
with a great deal of spirituality in the synagogue in Neveh Dekalim. What happened to them after the prayers? Female soldiers dragged them outside. Do
you have a greater crisis than that? A moment before I felt like an angel in heaven and then reality beats me with truncheons and drags me to a bus. That’s
an essential crisis. What did this crisis do to them? They had a process of mourning, repression, denial. And afterward they opened up and asked the questions:
Why did we pray and God didn’t answer? Is our path even the right one? Were we right in this devotion? Does Israeli society even want us or is it kicking
And this bolsters talk about the “state of Judea”?
“The notion of the state of Judea is the heritage of small, marginal groups, but the key concept that is getting a foothold within religious Zionism is
the ultra-Orthodox model. People say: What, the ultra-Orthodox don’t live in this land? They do. Even in Bnei Brak they fulfill the commandment of settling
the Land of Israel. But the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve this government. They are not obedient. What does the ultra-Orthodox model say? It says no military
service, or at least not wholehearted service. Limited participation. Bearing the religious burden, not the social and political burden. Stripping the
state of the holiness we attributed to it.”
But the holiness of the state is one of the principles of your belief.
“True. The disappointment and insult are so large that they allow this thinking, which is a kind of breakthrough in religious Zionist thinking. I don’t
give it a good grade.”
It’s a different religious Zionism.
“It’s not religious Zionism. It’s not a Zionist society. It’s a type of ultra-Orthodox society, in which the motif of the holiness of the land is at the
center of its religious existence, just as with the ultra-Orthodox the motif of keeping the Sabbath is at the center. A new ultra-Orthodox society with
large woolen kippot. But it’s not religious Zionism. Because religious Zionism is a principled choice in that I go with this nation as it is. If this nation
chose this leadership, then it’s my leadership. Whoever ignores this and says that from his perspective only those devoted to the word of God are the people
of truth and the rest are, at the most, a marginal appendix, a footnote to the history of the Jewish people, is adopting ultra-Orthodox isolationist positions
This could lead to far worse clashes. Ultra-Orthodox society achieved the Sabbath closure of Jerusalem’s Bar-Ilan Street with violence.
“Ultra-Orthodox society is a strong society. The state does not consider forcibly recruiting the ultra-Orthodox into the army, because it doesn’t want to
enter into a frontal clash with ultra-Orthodox society. The mighty protest in front of the Supreme Court seared the consciousness of secular society, the
Supreme Court and [court president] Aharon Barak himself. He doesn’t want to be in that place again. The state wasn’t afraid of insulting and utterly humiliating
religious Zionist society, because it knew that at the basis of this society there is a fundamental loyalty to the values of society and state.”
You’re in a type of trap.
“Yes. Unequivocally a trap. We know and we knew how to establish communities in Judea and Samaria solely with the cooperation of the Israeli government.
We don’t know how to establish communities against the state. The ultra-Orthodox option is not an option, because the religious Zionist public is very
integrated: The evacuating soldier is religious Zionist, the GOC central command is religious Zionist. In ultra-Orthodox society, the evacuator is always
the other, the minister is the other, the chief of staff is the other. We are not dealing with the other, we are dealing with ourselves.”
The question is who Gisser sees as “ourselves.” Speaking after the Amona evacuation, he declared a dissociation from the youngsters who led the struggle.
“We are finished with the brazen struggle,” he said. “We’re out of patience for whoever leads such a struggle.” Many parents will not send their children
to the subsequent struggles, said Gisser, adding that the “anarchists” who ran wild in Amona should be left alone to face the police.
“Even the right-wing MKs must do so, otherwise it’s political suicide,” he said. “The rules of the game have changed.”
By Meron Rapoport