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No laughing matter

In England there is a saying: “That takes the biscuit.” Perhaps a good translation into American (quoting the English novelist Douglas Adams) is to say: “Just when you thought life couldn’t possibly get any worse it suddenly does.”

Those of you familiar with the musings, or rantings, of this column, probably have the writer down as a pessimist or, at best, a realist. And the truth is, you are not far off the mark. To be spot-on you just have to add another ingredient: black humor.

And now to the matter at hand.

I have been smiling to myself for much of the last 48 hours, thinking of some 1,500 people living out some Benny Hillesque-type sketch. Having turned a blind eye for several years to the existence of outposts built by residents of Judea and Samaria without planning permission, the government has decided they must come down.

The incensed “settler movement” as they insist on calling themselves, despite the term’s pejorative connotations these days , waited for a few weeks before doing anything and then sent in the teenage hotheads and other more rational types to defend one particular outpost: Gilad Farm.

The result would be laughable if it was not so sad and so symptomatic of many of the evils in Israeli society.

Knowing the masses had gathered on the farm site, and knowing they were religious Jews, the Israel Defense Forces, police and border police began preparing for a Saturday night encounter. In the case of the army that meant hundreds of soldiers were told to spring into action at 2pm on Saturday afternoon in order to be ready for the operation at 8pm, not too long after the end of Sabbath.

[ASIDE: The IDF has very strict regulations as to what can and cannot be done on the holy Sabbath. The bottom line is that only actions that will help save lives can be carried out.]

[BACK TO THE STORY] At 8pm, with every journalist in the country having already reported the military’s plans, some 500 soldiers and police officers climbed onto the hill and the clashes began. Some 40 people were injured – mostly security personnel, though several eyewitnesses say most of the damage was caused by people tumbling over rocks. Several protestors were arrested in the mêlée.
The result: of the three prefabricated buildings that had stood there prior to the weekend, one still remained.

And so to Sunday.

Well, to cut a long story short: ditto Saturday.

Now on Monday morning the demonstrators are back on the hill, having set up tents where the buildings used to be. “Settler movement” leaders say they are already planning the next encounter on another windswept patch of land.

So what can be learned from this game of cat and mouse?

It is difficult to know where to begin. Let us try then with political mileage.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has been accused of using the outposts for his own political purposes. Facing a strong challenge from the doves to his leadership of Israel’s Labor Party, Ben-Eliezer is seemingly clutching at several straws in order to prove he can be as “peacenik” as the rest of them. The same argument has been leveled against him concerning the construction of a defensive buffer zone along the Green Line.

Meanwhile, the National Religious Party, which, during the 1980s and 90s became the darling of the “settler movement,” has given up on many battles of principle in order to retain its position in government: so much so that it hardly uttered a peep when the outposts issue first came to the fore a few months ago.

And that brings us to the Sabbath issue.

The fact that dozens of religious Jews and, perhaps more importantly, secular Jews were forced to transgress the Sabbath to prepare for the operation is one that is unacceptable, given that the raid was hardly a matter of life and death. “It could have been carried out months ago, or a day later,” as the father of one religious elite soldier put it.

However, it is interesting to note that the National Religious Party jumped on the Sabbath bandwagon for its own political gain, because it knew full well it had well and truly missed the outpost boat.

On Sunday morning, listeners to Israel’s two main talk-radio stations were thus treated to NRP leaders calling Ben-Eliezer a good-for-nothing deceiver and the defense minister demanding the head of the NRP’s leader because he failed to condemn the “settler movement’s” “attacks” on soldiers and police officers.

As I said way back when, at the top of this item, it would be laughable.

However, this tale is telling. It points to the deep divides in Israeli society which, to be honest, are far more disturbing than the cheap behavior of a bunch of idiotic, uncultured politicians.

Take the Sabbath issue. While some Jews shed a tear because of the IDF’s actions this Saturday, secular Jews in Tel Aviv were celebrating a victory of another sort. The Shinui Party (“Shinui” means “change”) launched A Friday Night bus service. There is no public transport in Tel Aviv, or most other Israeli cities, during the Sabbath. Shinui maintains that is discriminatory as it prevents the huge secular majority in Tel Aviv from truly enjoying the weekend. And so it has begun providing a free privately-run bus service taking young people to Tel Aviv’s nightclubs.

This religious split is deepening.

On last week’s seventh anniversary of the assassination of then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, hundreds of religious and secular people met in a bid to establish dialogue. That shows just how serious the matter has become. Two Jews require some formal arena to say “hello.”

That assassination brings us to the massive divide: between the doves and the hawks. Neither epithet is particularly complimentary, but they have become the accepted terms.

Divide is no longer a sufficient term. “Aching chasm” begins to hit the mark.

True, many on the left have moved to the center these past two years, but when push comes to shove and the people of Israel have to face the eventuality of a Palestinian state, the “Berlin Wall” that separates the camps may be impossible to break down.

Keep on laughing.