Judge, minister, now army chief: settlers are rising in Israel


JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s military has long had close ties with Jewish settlers in the West Bank. These bonds will deepen.

For the first time, a settler will serve as the Israeli military’s chief of staff and become the enforcer of Israel’s indefinite occupation of the West Bank, now in its 56th year.

Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi’s nomination was approved Sunday and he is expected to begin his three-year term on January 17.

Halevi’s rise caps the decades-long transformation of the settler movement from a small group of religious ideologues into a diverse and influential force at the heart of Israel’s mainstream, whose members have reached the highest echelons of government and other key institutions.

Critics say the settlers’ outsized political clout threatens any hope of establishing an independent Palestinian state and jeopardizes the country’s future as a democracy. They say Halevi’s appointment reveals just how closely connected settlers and the military really are.

“It’s not surprising that we’ve gotten to a point where the chief of staff is also a settler,” said Shabtay Bendet of the anti-settlement oversight group Peace Now.

Others say Halevi, currently deputy chief of staff, has had a distinguished military career and his location will not influence his decision-making. He served as head of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and military intelligence and headed the Southern Command, from where he oversaw operations in the Gaza Strip.

Secretary of Defense Benny Gantz praised Halevi as an ethics officer. “I have no doubt that he is the right man to lead the military,” Gantz said of his nomination.

The military declined to make Halevi available for an interview.

Born just months after the 1967 Middle East War when Israel conquered the West Bank, Halevi grew up in Jerusalem. Halevi is a descendant of a rabbi considered the father of the modern settler movement.

Halevi lives in Kfar HaOranim, a settlement on the invisible border between Israel and the West Bank.

Many of those who moved to Kfar HaOranim were attracted by cheaper housing prices in a central location between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv rather than a radical ideology. Yet the decision to live in a settlement often even indicates a nationalistic political leaning. Many Israelis are still reluctant to visit parts of the West Bank.

A search of some of Halevi’s earlier speeches and public statements did not reveal his opinion of the Jewish settlement enterprise.

The settler movement embraced the incoming army chief.

“We are proud that the new chief of staff is a resident,” said Israel Ganz, head of the regional settlements council of which Kfar HaOranim is a member. He said he expects every chief of staff to act with a belief in the “justice” of Jewish settlement and the “deepening of the roots” of Jewish settlers.

The Palestinians want the West Bank as part of their hoped-for state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Since 1967, the settler population has grown to approximately 500,000 people living in more than 130 West Bank settlements and outposts. Nearly 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, most of them in semi-autonomous population centers administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Much of the international community views the settlements as illegitimate and an obstacle to peace, while Israel sees the area as its biblical heartland and critical to security.

The West Bank operates under a two-tier system in which settlers enjoy the same rights as citizens in Israel, while Palestinians are subject to military rule. The Palestinian Authority governs parts of the West Bank but is hampered in many ways by the occupation.

For the Palestinians, soldiers are the most visible enforcers of the occupation. Under international law, an occupying military is supposed to protect civilians under its rule, but Palestinians typically view soldiers as hostile to them.

Soldiers are manning the checkpoints Palestinians must pass through to enter Israel or those set up between their cities, disrupting their journey. In search of suspected militants, soldiers often carry out arrest operations in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians accused of violence are tried in military courts and almost always convicted. Israel sees these measures as essential to its security.

Critics also say the military is turning a blind eye to settler violence against Palestinians, which has intensified in recent months, including rampages that also target soldiers. In one case last week, a settlement guard on a Defense Ministry salary was seen allied with a settler in a clash with Palestinians.

For settlers, the military is increasing their presence in the West Bank. Soldiers protect settlements. The military escorts settlers when they want to visit sensitive sites or hold a march or protest. A defense agency headed by a general is responsible for approving settler housing, and some of the top military commanders are settlers.

Oded Revivi, mayor of the settlement of Efrat, said he didn’t think Halevi’s location would affect the way he ran the military in the West Bank, which he said was dictated by the politics of elected officials.

“He was chosen because of his career, because of his achievements during his career,” he said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with where he lives.”

Over the years, settlers have reached key positions in Israeli institutions.

The country’s current list of Supreme Court justices includes at least two settlers. Settler politicians have long served as cabinet ministers, including Avigdor Lieberman, who was Israel’s foreign, defense and finance ministers. Settlers have held key positions in cultural institutions and on boards that allocate land. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was a former settler leader, although he did not live in a settlement.

This integration, part of a concerted effort by settlers over the years, is rarely questioned by Israelis.

Many Israelis give little thought to the occupation, and the news media often ignores the approval of new settler housing unless it draws international censure. And opposition to the settler narrative is often officially silenced. Schools in liberal Tel Aviv were recently banned from showing maps delineating the West Bank and marking it as demarcated from Israel.

The cultural world, once a mainstay of Israel’s liberalism and peaceful left, has embraced settlers and featured them on reality TV shows, while artists and musicians are increasingly willing to perform in settlements or accept funds from settler sponsors. A well-known rocker who had often denounced settlers apologized to them at a recent concert in the Beit El settlement.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian commentator, said having a settler as chief of staff raised concerns that the military’s behavior towards the Palestinians would deteriorate, further entrenching Israel’s occupation and making the establishment of a Palestinian state all the more unlikely.

“There’s this fiction that people in the international community seem to have that somehow there’s Israel and then the settlements — like they’re separate and separate from each other,” she said. “But in reality we see that all is one.”


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