Walking among the tens of thousands of Israeli protesters at Moshav Kfar Maimon this week was like being witness to a miracle. There in the scorching summer heat were thousands upon thousands of families with children of all ages, young men and women and elderly people, living under siege and in conditions that would make an infantryman cringe.
And yet, there was no complaining. There was no shouting. There was no pushing. There was no garbage on the ground. There was no stench of any kind. What one saw in the protesters' faces and heard in each and every statement and conversation was dignity, determination, integrity, faith and a form of earthy, plainspoken and unabashed patriotism and concern for the greater good that has become an artifact of a barely remembered past for many Israelis.
In witnessing this – when just outside were 20,000 soldiers and policemen, laying concertina wire along the fence penning these people in as if they were terrorists, and standing arms locked in row upon row, poised to pounce at them at the slightest provocation – it was, indeed, hard to shake off the sense that one was watching a miracle happen.
The tens of thousands of law-abiding citizens – estimates of their actual numbers run between 30,000 and 60,000 – were exercising their democratic right to protest the government's plan to expel 10,000 Israelis from Gaza and northern Samaria and destroy the communities they built from sand next month. The protesters oppose this plan for moral reasons. It is simply obscene, they say, to carry out these expulsions. These people are set to be thrown out of their homes and their farms just because they are Jews. Israel receives nothing in return. These people's homes will be either destroyed or turned over to the same Palestinian terrorist forces that have been attacking them continuously for the past five years. Their hothouses and livestock are set to be turned over to the Palestinians as well.
The plan's proponents argue that the expulsion of 10,000 Jews from their farms and communities in the Land of Israel is necessary to maintain Israel as a democratic, Jewish society. Yet, what these opponents of the expulsion plan experienced, in their efforts to even voice their opposition, is that in insisting on carrying out this plan – which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was reelected overwhelmingly in 2003 by promising to oppose – the government is trampling and endangering both Israel's democratic form of government and its character as a Jewish state.
On Sunday evening, the day before the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip's solidarity march from Netivot to Gush Katif was set to begin, the police denied the council a permit. In so doing, the police unabashedly denied these people their democratic right to protest the policies of their government. The police's justification was the announced plan to walk to Gush Katif – on the third day of the protest. The denial of the permit to demonstrate meant that everything about the protest plan was deemed illegal. Citizens conducting demonstrations in Netivot, Kfar Maimon and Kibbutz Re'im, the first three planned stops on the march – all of which are well within the sacrosanct 1949 armistice lines – was deemed an illegal activity.
Then Monday, when the council ignored this draconian announcement, the police breached the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of Israelis by intercepting privately owned buses throughout the country – from the Golan Heights to Tel Aviv to Eilat – and prevented their law-abiding passengers and drivers from exercising their right to travel freely in the State of Israel. In both of these actions, the police – with full backing from the Prime Minister's Office, the State Attorney's Office and the leftist local media – took actions that undermined Israeli democracy and its foundations as a state ruled by law and not the police.
On the roads to Netivot on Monday and on the roads to Kfar Maimon on Tuesday and Wednesday, the police set up roadblocks to inspect cars. Cars with orange banners of solidarity with the residents set for expulsion, and cars whose passengers were identifiably religious, were pulled over and not allowed to pass. Rather than turn around and go home, the passengers said nothing of this obviously unlawful, discriminatory humiliation. They simply got out of their cars and, pushing their baby carriages and strollers, walked for kilometers under the desert sun to reach Kfar Maimon on foot. In so treating these citizens, the police clearly signaled that they view religious Jews as a threat. So much for leaving Gaza and northern Samaria in order to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic state.
AS ONE walked along the crowded road and the lawns of Kfar Maimon, one was struck by the ubiquity of the television cameras. Nearly all major news organizations in the Western world were present. In the past, when the council brought up to a quarter of a million people out to protest land giveaways, the mass demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv received barely any attention. And here were Fox and Sky News, CNN and the BBC competing with Israel's television channels for the best place to park their satellite dishes.
The reason for this is clear: The world press has bought into the demonized image of the Jewish residents of Gaza, Judea and Samaria that has been largely propagated by the Israeli Left and the Israeli media. The "settlers" are viewed as violent, extremist, money-grubbing religious fanatics who threaten the foundations of Israel and block any chance for peace between Israel and its neighbors. In other words, under normal circumstances, protests by the settlers are considered unworthy of media attention. But this time, the media swallowed the bait set by the council leaders who insisted that they would march to Gush Katif. Everyone came to film the blood that would be let when the protesters clashed with the Israeli army and the police.
But once they were there, far away from their air-conditioned offices and apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, they had to send in the pictures of what they saw. And what they saw was the truth they have been insistently denying for the past 30 years. Namely, that these Israelis have nothing in common with their demonized image. Here were tens of thousands of peaceful protesters singing and dancing and studying together. Here they were, handing fruit and drinks to the soldiers and policemen sent to stand against them and, rather than fighting with them, they prayed with them. For the first time, perhaps ever, both the general public in Israel and the world were able to receive undistorted images of these people on their television screens.
If the police's trampling of democracy by attempting to block the protesters from arriving at Netivot and Kfar Maimon weren't enough, we had the hysterical reaction of the police and the IDF to ensure that the general public understood that, like the media, the commanders of the police and the IDF had fallen for the discriminatory stereotypes of the settlers and their supporters. Arrayed against these families was a division and a half of security forces. There were more security forces laying siege to Kfar Maimon than participated in the Operation Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria in April 2002. In the entire US invasion force of Iraq in 2003, only 20,000 troops actually participated in combat operations. As the Palestinians in Gaza continued their Kassam rocket and mortar attacks, rather than fight Israel's enemies, the IDF deployed six combat brigades to Kfar Maimon, where the soldiers were told to lay siege on their own family members.
Brig.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen, who is the division commander charged with commanding the withdrawal and expulsion from Gush Katif, laid siege to his brother, Rabbi Reem Hacohen and hi
s family. Reem's son, a cadet at officer training school, laid siege to his parents and siblings. Thirty percent of the soldiers in the Golani Infantry Brigade live in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. These soldiers laid siege to their parents and brothers and sisters.
At least one battalion commander refused to follow his order to lay barbed wire along Kfar Maimon's fence. Several commanders ordered their soldiers to remove their unit insignias and berets so that no one would recognize them. Soldiers from command courses in the IDF, who were sent with no warning to Kfar Maimon, cried when they received the orders and the soldiers standing arm to arm against the protesters cried as they were forced to lay siege to their innocent countrymen whose only offense was voicing their opposition to the expulsion plan.
Sensing the impact of the demonstration, and no doubt noting that the latest polling data from the left-leaning Herzog Institute show that less than 50 percent of Israelis support the plan, Thursday morning Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the government may order the expulsion to begin immediately rather than on its scheduled date of August 17.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived Thursday afternoon to make sure that Sharon goes through with the plan in spite of the fact that doing so all but ensures that Hamas will take over Gaza. Hamas has already prepared 20,000 new uniforms for its operatives and supporters. They are planning a victory march through Gush Katif the day after the last Jew is expelled. So much for Washington's belief that throwing Jews out of their homes simply because they are Jews will contribute to the prospects of Middle East peace.
When a democratic government adopts an immoral policy, it is the duty of its loyal citizens, through acts of protest and civil disobedience, to hold up a mirror to their leaders and their fellow citizens to force them to contend with the implications of their policies. At Netivot and Kfar Maimon this week, the protesters did just that. What we saw on the one side was the dignified, humble and stubborn Zionism of the citizens set to be expelled and of their supporters.
On the other side, we saw the anti-democratic and discriminatory face of the government that stands against them. The time has come for the people of Israel to be allowed to freely and democratically decide which side they are on.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.