JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military has long enjoyed a warm relationship with Jewish settlers in the West Bank. These ties are about to deepen.
For the first time, a settler will serve as chief of staff of the Israeli army, becoming the enforcer of Israel’s indefinite occupation of the West Bank, now in its 56th year.
Major General Herzi Halevi’s appointment was approved on Sunday and he is expected to begin his three-year term on January 17.
Halevi’s rise crowns the settler movement’s decades-long transformation from a small group of religious ideologues to a diverse and influential force at the heart of the Israeli mainstream whose members have risen to the highest ranks of government and government. other key institutions.
Critics say the settlers’ outsized political influence jeopardizes any hope of an independent Palestinian state and jeopardizes the country’s future as a democracy. They say Halevi’s appointment shows how interconnected the settlers and the military really are.
“It’s no surprise that we’ve come to a point where the chief of staff is also a settler,” said Shabtay Bendet of the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now.
Others say Halevi, currently deputy chief of staff, had a distinguished military career and where he lives will not affect his decision-making. He served as head of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, as well as military intelligence and headed the southern command, from where he oversaw operations in the Gaza Strip.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz praised Halevi as an ethics officer. “I have no doubt that he is the right man to lead the military,” Gantz said upon his appointment.
The army refused to release Halevi for an interview.
Born just months after the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the West Bank and grew up in Jerusalem, Halevi is a descendant of a rabbi considered the father of the modern colonial movement.
Halevi lives in Kfar HaOranim, a settlement that adjoins the invisible line between Israel and the West Bank.
Many of those moving to Kfar HaOranim may have been drawn to cheaper housing prices in a central location between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, rather than a radical ideology. Yet choosing to live in a colony often even indicates a certain nationalist political inclination. Many Israelis are still hesitant to visit parts of the West Bank.
A search of some of Halevi’s past speeches and public statements did not reveal his opinion of the Jewish settlement enterprise.
The settler movement has embraced the new army chief.
“We are proud that the new chief of staff is a resident,” said Israel Ganz, the head of the regional settlement council that includes Kfar HaOranim. He said he expects any chief of staff to operate with a belief in the “righteousness” of Jewish settlement and to “deepen the roots” of Jewish settlers.
The Palestinians want the West Bank to be part of their hoped-for state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Since 1967, the settler population has grown to some 500,000 people, who live in more than 130 settlements and outposts in the West Bank. 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 sees the settlements as illegitimate and obstacles to peace, while Israel sees the territory as its biblical heartland and essential to security.
A two-tier system is in place in the West Bank, with settlers enjoying the same rights as citizens in Israel, while Palestinians are subject to military rule. The Palestinian Authority administers parts of the West Bank but it is hampered in many ways by the occupation.
For the Palestinians, the soldiers are the most visible executors of the occupation. Under international law, an occupying army is supposed to protect civilians under its rule, but Palestinians generally view soldiers as hostile towards them.
The soldiers occupy checkpoints Palestinians must pass through to enter Israel or those between their towns, disrupting their journey. Soldiers often conduct arrest raids in the Palestinian Autonomous Areas, searching for suspected militants. Palestinians accused of violence are tried, and almost always convicted, by military courts. Israel considers these measures essential to its security.
Critics also say the army turns a blind eye to settler violence against Palestinians, which has escalated in recent months, including rampages that have also targeted soldiers. In one case last week, a settlement guard paid by the Ministry of Defense was seen allying himself with a settler in a clash with Palestinians.
For the settlers, the army is strengthening their presence in the West Bank. The soldiers protect the settlements. The soldiers escort the settlers when they want to visit sensitive sites or organize a march or a demonstration. A general-led defense corps is responsible for approving settler housing, and some of the main army commanders are settlers.
Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat settlement, said he doesn’t believe where Halevi lives will influence how he leads the military in the West Bank, which he says is dictated by the policies 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 risen to 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 served as Israel’s foreign, defense and finance minister. Settlers held key positions in cultural institutions and in land allocation bodies. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was previously a settler leader, although he did not live in a settlement.
This integration, which has been part of a concerted effort by settlers for years, is hardly questioned by the Israelis.
Many Israelis pay little attention to the occupation, and the media often ignores approval of new housing for settlers unless it elicits international rebukes. And reactions against the settler narrative are often officially silenced. Schools in the liberal city of Tel Aviv were recently banned from showing maps that delineate the West Bank, marking it as separate from Israel.
The world of culture, once a mainstay of liberalism and Israel’s accommodating left, has embraced the settlers, featuring them on reality TV shows, while artists and musicians are increasingly accepting to perform in the settlements or to accept funding from settler sponsors. A popular rocker who had often denounced the settlers apologized to them at a recent concert in the settlement of Beit El.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian commentator, said having a settler as chief of staff raises fears that the army’s conduct towards the Palestinians will worsen, further entrench the Israeli occupation and render the creation of a Palestinian state all the more unlikely.
“There is this fiction that members of the international community seem to have, that there is sort of Israel and then there are the settlements – as if they are separate and apart from each other,” he said. she declared. “But really, in reality, we see that it’s all one.”
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