Some Israeli Troops Question Settlements

Before the Hebron massacre, soldiers complained that local settlers were rioting, creating tensions

DURING the interim agreement with the Palestinians and for the indefinite future, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) will continue to enforce military rule and safeguard the security of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Judging from letters that various units of the IDF have written to the Israeli press, to government ministers, and to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin over the past several months, however, some sectors of the Army are having doubts about the logic and justice of their assignment.

``We were told,'' said a unit of soldiers that wrote to Mr. Rabin after serving in the Gaza Strip, ``that our main task would be to `protect settlers against terrorist attacks.' But as things turned out, we were actually required to prevent settlers from attacking the Arab population. Political debates started among us, creating such polarization that it became nearly impossible to function.''

In a unit placed at Hebron prior to Baruch Goldstein's Feb. 25 massacre, soldiers circulated a petition to be submitted to the Defense Ministry complaining that Jewish settlers - not Hamas or Palestinians - constantly provoked riots in order to raise tensions in the area. ``I felt more secure when turning my back to Arabs than to settlers,'' an officer told Israeli reporter Amit Gurevitz, who was stationed with the Hebron unit. ``Their behavior towards the Arabs is intentionally intended to create provocations,'' complained another. ``They are interested in keeping the area tense, so that no atmosphere of reconciliation will ever occur.''

It must be stressed that Israeli soldiers rarely complain so openly about the situation in the territories - both because IDF troops are trained to follow orders and because the Army is itself a cross-section of Israeli society. Only a small number of soldiers refuse to serve in the occupation, on principle. Moreover, those from Mr. Gurevitz's unit (quoted above) identified themselves as dedicated voters for the right-wing Likud and Tsomet parties, both of which fervently reject Palestinian self-determination.

But doubts about Israeli policy in the territories transcend expected political boundaries among those with field experience. ``Regardless of my political opinions,'' said one soldier, ``this was the first time that everyone was unanimous in that we have nothing to do here.'' Another said, ``In the letter that I am going to send to Rabin, I will emphasize we have nothing to do here, in every respect - there are no flags to be removed, no Fatah members who are to be arrested.''

The fact is that few soldiers feel comfortable standing aside as settlers go on rampages, an expected outcome of official Army policy. One general complained that ``only the settlers are active'' in beating and threatening elderly Palestinians, throwing stones, smashing car windows, and spraying insecticides on fruits and vegetables in the Arab market. This stood in sharp contrast to the Palestinians who were ``quiet,'' but regularly punished with arrests, bullets, and curfews.

A reservist from another unit described ``nightmare rides into tiny settlements in the heart of dense Arab populations'' he took while escorting settlers to their West Bank towns.

Ending the nightmare rides, endless provocations, and injustice in the West Bank and Gaza will come only when such complaints result in the removal of settlers and soldiers from the territories. Rather than withdrawing the soldiers and dismantling Jewish settlements, the Rabin government has beefed up the Army's presence in the territories and may be ignoring its feedback.

* Eyal Press is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in New York, and writes for The Nation.

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