Peace in our Time?

May 26, 2007

The spirit of the commander prevails

Filed under: Blogroll, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Peace, Peace Now, Uncategorized — angelajerusalem @ 8:27 am

Haggai Alon has a bone to pick with the military establishment. He believes the system is calibrated to make the security-fence route more favorable to settlers and to allow them to take over houses in Hebron

By Meron Rapoport

“There is a military policy that is causing the Arab population to leave the center of Hebron. It’s a clear plan, it’s a fact. Everything would be all right if they would say so openly, if our policy were to create Jewish contiguity in Hebron, and the government were to tell the army to do so: We would go to elections over that. But that is not the policy of the State of Israel. The problem is that under military rule the spirit of the commander is stronger than anything else.”

Haggai Alon says these words in the context of his job. In his position as adviser to the defense minister on “fabric of life” issues, Alon visits Hebron with the army, with the Civil Administration, with whoever he has to. As part of his job he sits in on discussions with senior Israel Defense Forces officers, walks around in the area, meets with officers and is supposed to tell them what to do on behalf of his boss, the defense minister.

Here and there he succeeds, he says. The Jordan Valley Highway stopped being a highway for “Israelis only,” the work hours at the Karni crossing were doubled, increasing the amount of goods that pass through – but the overall situation is depressing. The experience Alon has accumulated after a year in the job has taught him that the official policy of the Israeli government is one thing, and the actions of the army on the ground are another, sometimes the opposite. In a disturbing way it is reminiscent of the Winograd Committee, which revealed to us how the General Staff held political discussions, whereas the cabinet discussed where to bomb. The cabinet and the army exchanged roles in Lebanon. According to Alon, the same is true of the West Bank.

Alon, 33, has become a thorn in the side of the defense establishment. When, of his own accord, the outgoing CEO of Central Command issued an order forbidding Israelis to give Palestinians rides in their cars, Alon set up a hue and cry and the order was finally rescinded. When he discovered that the IDF was trying to evade honoring a ruling of the High Court of Justice, he sent letters and caused a great deal of embarrassment in the system. When he reveals how army officers are trying to move the fence so it will accord with the map of settlements, he quarrels openly with very senior officers.

Alon, as one may guess, did not grow up in the defense establishment. He is a political person and he doesn’t hide it. He was born in Kibbutz Naan, a vestige of what was once called Ahdut Ha’avoda (the left-wing Zionist Labor party). He thinks the Jordan Valley should be left in Israeli hands even in a final status agreement. Definitely not a classical leftist.

For years he has accompanied Amir Peretz, and shortly after Peretz was appointed defense minister, Alon was appointed his political adviser. Since the beginning of the year he has been working in the Defense Ministry as the adviser on “fabric of life” issues. He, a dyed-in-the-wool civilian, replaced Brigadier General (res.) Baruch Spiegel, formerly a senior officer in the Civil Administration.

“Fabric of life” has recently become a burning issue. Last week the World Bank, the United Nations organization considered to be friendliest to Israel, published a harsh report, which claimed that although Israel signed an agreement in 2005 to ease restrictions on movement in the territories, they have only become stricter. The report states that Israel prevents Palestinians access to about half the areas of the West Bank, and it claims that the restrictions on movement were designed to grant priority to the movement of the settlers and to help the expansion of the settlements at the expense of the Palestinian population.

The Benchmarks document recently formulated by the Americans, which presented Israel with a timetable for dismantling roadblocks in the West Bank and for the opening of a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza, aroused a great deal of anger in Israel. Some IDF officials claimed that the Americans were able to write the document only based on inside information from “factors in the defense establishment.” As though OCHA, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, doesn’t report regularly on the situation of the roadblocks in the territories, and as though the Americans have no way of knowing what is happening at Hawara checkpoint. Alon does not understand why they are upset by the American demands. The problem is not the demands, he says, but the question: “How did it happen that a year and a half after the disengagement, the Americans feel a need to give us a written document, something they haven’t done in a very long time.”

A defense source says the origins of this document lie in the fact that the Americans have stopped believing Israel because “they are presented with maps that are an outright lie.” Alon says that even though he works in the Defense Ministry and the data are supposed to be accessible to him, he has difficulty knowing the exact number of checkpoints. “The only thing that’s clear is that they have doubled since the disengagement.”

His job, he says, is to ensure that the official statements made by the Israeli government regarding its policy toward the Palestinians are in fact implemented, and that is not an easy job. He says the IDF is setting a route for the fence that will not enable the establishment of a Palestinian state and is allowing itself to evade High Court orders to change the route. He claims that the army “is carrying out an apartheid policy” that is emptying Hebron of Arabs, setting up roadblocks without anyone knowing where and how many, Judaizing the Jordan Valley and cooperating openly and blatantly with the settlers.

Take for example Highway 317, which links several settlements in the south Hebron Hills. About a year ago, the IDF constructed a concrete barrier along the road, whose location is no coincidence. The barrier prevents Palestinian from reaching their lands on the side of the road. According to the plan approved by Ariel Sharon about three years ago, the separation fence was supposed to run along Highway 317 and in effect to annex the local settlements to Israel, together with hundreds of square kilometers of the southern West Bank between the highway and the Green Line. After it turned out that it would be impossible to defend this route in the courts, it was decided to change the route to coincide with the Green Line.

And now, miraculously, the concrete barrier that was constructed last year is exactly congruent with Sharon’s original route. About half a year ago the High Court ordered it dismantled, but the IDF was not impressed. For months it ignored the specific order, until the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria division announced about a month and a half ago that the IDF has no intention of dismantling the barrier. This was a strange announcement, not only because it ostensibly contradicts a High Court order, but also because, according to Alon, no senior officials in the Defense Minister were informed of the intention not to move the fence: not the defense minister and not even the ministry’s director general, who is the official responsible for the fence. The Central Command decided to build the fence in the spirit of Sharon, and that’s that. Exactly, says Alon, the way it enthusiastically maintains what he calls the “malicious plan” to link Gush Etzion to Jerusalem, or to annex dozens of kilometers of desert in the area of Ma’aleh Adumim – plans that if carried out will eliminate the possibility of establishing two states for two nations, as written in the government platform.

After discovering a few weeks ago that the IDF does not intend to dismantle the barrier, Alon sent a furious letter to the defense minister, in which he claimed that the army “is doing everything in its power to avoid obeying the High Court ruling.” He says that “what is amazing is that army officers say that the route of the fence should have passed there [along Highway 317, M.R.], because that is what Sharon wanted. They’re not embarrassed. They say: ‘The High Court told us to move the fence, so we moved it, and now we’re building a mini-fence [the barrier, M.R.].’ As they see it, there was a hitch, the High Court screwed them.

“Another example is the ‘hole’ in the fence in the area of the Trans-Samaria Highway. The route, which was approved a moment before the formation of the new government, includes ‘fingers’ around Ariel and Karnei Shomron, but at the moment this section is not being built, because the Americans are opposed to building a fence deep inside the West Bank. So meanwhile there is a gap.”

Alon coordinated the work of a team of former senior officials in the Central Command, the Civil Administration and the Shin Bet security services, which has proposed a solution: The fence will be built along the Green Line, and “special security areas” will be built around the large settlements deep inside the area. The proposal will soon be submitted to the defense minister for discussion, but Alon is guessing that the army will prefer to leave the gap in place. “The entire conduct on this issue shows the extent to which the professional establishment has implemented a political policy, in a frightening manner.”

Proof of the fact that the gap is a security risk could be seen last Pesach, in his opinion, when a truck bearing a yellow license plate, loaded with explosives, arrived in Tel Aviv and returned to Qalqilyah, without being stopped on the way. How did that happen? “There is no checking of cars with yellow license plates on the Green Line, because the settlers are unwilling to undergo a check,” says Alon.

Alon has several current examples of the close relations between the army and the settlers: for example, the ascent to Homesh on Independence Day. The defense minister did not approve plan. Yet thousands of demonstrators celebrated the holiday on the hill near Nablus. “In Homesh there was open, blatant cooperation with the settlers,” says Alon. “At first the army gave them permission to ascend. After the permission was revealed, they canceled it, and then, ostensibly by surprise, the settlers ‘confused’ the army and went up to Homesh with dozens of buses.”

Something similar happened in Hebron. Alon has trouble believing that the army did not know of the intention of hundreds of settlers to enter the “beit hameriva” (“house of contention”). He says “when a system is calibrated in advance to allow such things to happen, they happen.”

As an example he cites from a letter sent by the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria division in reply to a request by the Council for Peace and Security to open the center of Hebron to Palestinian movement. “Does anyone think it is possible to protect the residents of the Jewish settlement in the neighborhoods of Jewish settlement when these neighborhoods are isolated from one another, and when they are divided by an area in which a Palestinian lifestyle is being conducted as a matter of routine? How is it possible to prevent an attack caused by friction in the aforesaid neighborhoods when regular Palestinian commercial life is being conducted right on their threshold?”

It may be an excellent reply, but neither Alon nor Minister Peretz nor any of his assistants have informed the Judea and Samaria Division that there is a policy of separation in the center of Hebron. “There is no written order to empty Hebron of Arabs,” says Alon, “but that’s the greatness of military rule. It can simply refrain from doing: it can refrain from enforcing the law on the settlers and it can refrain from allowing the Palestinians to move around. In the entire story of violations of the law in the territories, the spirit of the commander is the determining factor. It is stronger than any law or procedure.”

According to Alon, the sprit of the CEO of Central Command, Yair Naveh, who is about to retire, was clear. He was “a settler in the service of the settlers,” he says, and should have been removed because of his statements against King Abdullah of Jordan and because of IDF activity in Ramallah on the day when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm el-Sheikh. But Naveh, says Alon, at least behaved decently. He did not conceal his opinions, yet he didn’t refuse to obey an order the moment he received specific instructions from the political leadership. Other officers, he says, recall their moral difficulty on the issue of the roadblocks only when interviewed upon their discharge.

Alon is trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Awareness of the issue of the roadblocks has increased, and in some places, like the Jordan Valley, there has been an easing of restrictions. The program he coordinated to change the route of the fence will soon come up for discussion. New Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi also raises his hopes. “Dan Halutz was a Sharon appointment, and that’s how he behaved. Ashkenazi is responsible. He is the hope of the Jewish people for taking politics out of the army. He has already told the political leaders: ‘Don’t cover political decisions with a pretense of security. Decide, and we’ll implement.’ The actual policy of the IDF, especially in recent years, is creating profound changes that threaten to make it impossible to leave the West Bank. We cannot allow the executive ranks to get us stuck in an irreversible binational situation.”

The IDF Spokesman said in response regarding Homesh that “3,000 Israeli citizens came to Homesh, although it was forbidden to remain in the area without a permit. IDF forces operated according to IDF values in order to ensure the security of the civilians.”

Regarding Highway 317 he said that “the Central Command did not try to prevent the implementation of the High Court decision, but examined it and decided on a model for implementation. Due to the reservations of Palestinian residents, the route proposed by the defense establishment is currently being examined.”

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