|For decades, settlers have seen themselves portrayed as a coddled, lavishly subsidized, politically omnipotent segment of Israeli society, a primary, if not the sole, root cause of the tragedies, rights abuses, and diplomatic and military dangers of the occupation of the Palestinians.
After nearly four years in the assault-rifle sights of Al Aqsa snipers and drive-by submachine gunners, after months in the shadow of the first announced government plan to eradicate settlements in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, a number of strident settler voices Monday told the world that it is looking in the wrong direction for the true victims of Israeli rights abuses.
"Israel today has become non-democratic," said Rabbi Yishai Babad, Secretary of the Yesha Rabbis Committee of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. "There is no longer freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is only granted to those with power and the media."
He said Ariel Sharon had exercised power in anti-democratic ways in dismissing the Likud rank-and-file's rejection of the disengagement plan in a May vote, and that now the prime minister's government was silencing rabbis and rightists who on religious or other principles disagreed with his intention to cede land to the Palestinians.
"It cannot be that every statement by rabbis or the right is viewed as sedition, and becomes an immediate sensation, when the extreme left speaks out day in and day out against all that is sacred, against the Torah. All of the media are full of terrible slanders against words of Torah and they could have been put on trial scores of times" if authorities had applied laws justly, he said.
The sensitivity of settlers to what they viewed as an escalating attack on their rights to free speech, free assembly and, especially, freedom of choosing their place of residence, was abruptly magnified by a briefing given cabinet ministers Monday by the head of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency.
Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter raised hackles and fears across the right Sunday by warning of what he viewed as growing extremism among militant opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.
Spurred by Dichter's comments, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz plans to convene the Shin Bet chief, the IDF Judge Advocate General, and senior police and Justice Ministry officials to discuss policies regarding bringing suspects to trial over incitement to violence.
"We cannot speak freely today, because if I use strong words today, an indictment charge will be filed against me tomorrow," Babad said. "How can a rabbi speak freely, if Mazuz in the past has said he understands the sarbanim ["refuseniks"] of the left, while he said yesterday that he is about to 'take care' of refusal and all this talk against disengagement."
Babad refrained from directly addressing such issues as whether force may be used in resisting evacuation. But he added that when there is a clash between Israeli law and halakha, "halakha must always be paramount."
'We won't allow people to rape us'
Last month, the Yesha Rabbis Committee made headlines when it issued a ruling stating that "No person, civilian, soldier or policeman, may aid or actively participate in uprooting settlements or in expulsion of Jews." The panel of prominent settler spiritual leaders was careful not to address the minefield issue of whether it believed soldiers should actively refuse orders to remove settlers.
But others stepped into the breach.
"We are not people bereft of human rights, we are not people lacking human respect, and we will not allow people to rape us," said settlement movement veteran Uri Elitzur, in the late 1990s chief of staff to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alluding with rising emotion Monday of the threat that evacuation poses for settlers.
"If they come to rape us, and to nearly kill us, we will not be sacks of flour. It won't work like that."
Elitzur was among the first to go public with a carefully worded but militant line on resisting a future evacuation. Last month, interviewed by a national religious publication, Elitzur touched off a fireball of debate by advising soldiers to refuse orders to evict settlers, declaring that resort to violence - although without weapons like firearms - was justified when defending one's home from expulsion for political reasons.
Elitzur said that there have been attempts to silence the right ever since the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a right-wing student implacably opposed to Rabin's peace moves with the Palestinians.
The left has long argued - and the right has long strongly denied - that Amir's actions were fostered by vehemently anti-government demonstrations that preceded the November shooting, and by rabbis' pronouncements indicating that Rabin fell under the category of din rodef, a precept of Jewish law permitting the killing of Jews who put fellow Jews under mortal risk.
Rightists maintain that the killing has been exploited time and again as a means to curtail their rights to free speech and expression.
"We've been hearing the mantra since the Rabin murder: 'A prime minister has already once been murdered in Israel,'" Elitzur said. "But it cannot be, and certainly at such a difficult time in Israel, that the opposition's mouth is shut with the explanation that there are crazy people in Israel. It's true - there are crazy people. I have absolutely no responsibility for Yigal Amir and those whom resemble him."
Bloodshed as a point of agreement
If there were any points of agreement between the Shin Bet men and the right, it was that bloodshed would be difficult to avoid.
Asked if he foresaw civil war breaking out in the wake of strife over settlements, ex-Shin Bet chief, now peace plan campaigner, Ami Ayalon said he preferred not to use the term. "But as to whether we are moving toward the possibility of civil violence, I believe so.
"If we are not careful, it will reach the level of violence," Ayalon said. "Those who speak of din rodef, those who permit the use of violence, are granting a license to kill."
For his part, Elitzur said, "To my regret, if heaven forbid the government attempts to carry out its inhuman plan, there will be bloodshed.
"I don't accept this with understanding. But you cannot shut the mouth of the opposition just because there are people on the fringes, and there are many of these. In this sphere there will certainly be many."
Weighing in later on Monday, the Chief Rabbinate announced a ruling that under halakha, settlers were barred from using violence to resist evacuation. It remained to be seen whether the determination would have a hoped-for moderating effect.
Rabin killing still relevant
Cabinet minister Gideon Ezra, himself a former senior Shin Bet official, declared the image of Rabin's assassination remains as relevant as ever. "We would not be hearing these things from the head of the Shin Bet had it not been for what happened to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory."
Ezra recently stirred a storm of controversy by suggesting during a Knesset speech that Gaza Strip settlers should inform on anti-disengagement militants they believe could act with violence.
"Someone among the settlers or people outside of the settlements may interpret incorrectly the comments of rabbis and others concerning resistance," Ezra said Monday. "These people must be located ahead of time, and prevented from carrying out any insane acts."
Yesha Rabbis Committee spokesman Rabbi Daniel Shilo countered that if anyone were guilty of incitement, it was Dichter, who he said had tarred an enormous segment of Israeli society with the taint of sedition.
"It is unacceptable to me that the head of the Shin Bet should speak like this. Either he has solid evidence, or he would be better off not speaking, because this [spreading rumors without evidence] is incitement, rebellion, and stirring up fights."
Referring directly to Dichter, Shilo said, "First of all, the spreading of rumors must stop. The propagation of hatred must stop. Solid evidence must be related to, not these sorts of flimsy things. I know no one who says that it is permitted to shove or strike security forces personnel.
Shilo said that when opponents of evacuation discuss resistance, "they speak of 'fierce passive resistance.' Expulsion of people from places where they have lived for dozens of years, and who were directed there by the government - this is an act that is the crudest form of trampling of civil rights. So there's no need to be amazed if among the people condemned to this terrible act, that there will be irregular responses as well. One can expect this."
Justice Minister Yosef Lapid suggested that it was Elitzur who was engaged in incitement. "We are speaking of incitement to violence, and when we speak of someone like him, who has a public standing even as a private citizen, his influence is certainly even stronger."
Lapid, of the secular-centrist Shinui party, said that in order to safeguard democracy and freedom of speech, Israel was loath to use the words of individuals as the trigger for criminal cases.
But Lapid added that "Israeli criminal law has clauses for incitement and incitement to violence, and if people exploit the Justice Ministry's very liberal approach toward free speech for the purpose of inciting to murder, din rodef, and the right to harm soldiers, I assume even the patience of the attorney general will be put to a difficult test."
Lapid said that "for the present, we are sending warnings." Lapid also singled out Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal, rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, who said last week that the ancient concept of din rodef could no longer be put into effect, but added that, strictly speaking, the distinction applied to anyone who transfers parts of the land of Israel to non-Jews.
"Its possible to interpret this as a thin hint, " Lapid said, "but he is trying in advance to wash his hands clean. These are examples of playing with fire, and the grave of Yitzhak Rabin is a reminder of this."