The Occupation Comes Home

A recent news item in a niche publication about a new recruitment program for Israel's national police force obliquely provided some of the most telling testimony I've seen recently about the importance of the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It said nothing about the talks, yet read properly, it was a reminder that reaching a two-state solution is essential not only as a means of achieving peace -- critical as that is in itself -- but also of protecting Israel's own society from the rot caused by occupation.

I spotted the article in Olam Katan ("Small World"), a free weekly given out in Israeli synagogues on the Sabbath. The target audience is religious Zionists -- Orthodox Jews who generally favor integration into the wider Israeli society but who often nurture a strong minority identity, a tribal sense of "us" and everyone else. The community is hardly monolithic. But ever since the Six-Day War of 1967, most religious Zionists have leaned rightward. They've been the strongest supporters of settlement in occupied territory, and their support for maintaining permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank is often based on a theology that turns hard-line nationalism into a religious value. Put the other way around, one price of occupation has been a steady distortion of Judaism.

Since the 1980s, religious Zionists have also been gradually taking the place of Israel's old secular elite in the army's combat units and officer corps. A key element in the shift is a set of religious academies where young men can spend a year between high school and their compulsory military service, getting a mix of physical and doctrinal training. A new study shows that over the past 20 years, the proportion of infantry officers who are religious rose from 2.5 percent to more than 25 percent. (For comparison's sake, the proportion of religious soldiers in the army as a whole is less than 14 percent.)

Now, Olam Katan happily reports, the country's single, national police force wants to acquire members of that new fighting elite. A new program offers ex-army officers who are graduates of the religious academies a three-and-a-half-year course, at the end of which each will receive a college degree and a police rank equivalent to being an officer in the military. As part of the course, they'll spend another seven months at the religious academy of Elisha in the West Bank. Two nongovernmental organizations associated with the religious right have helped set up the program.

There are a few small problems with this transfusion of new blood. These officers generally come to the army with a highly politicized religious ideology, which regards evacuating settlements as an unconscionable sin. "I'm not going to break religious law if all the rabbis tell me not to," one student at Elisha academy told me last year when I asked what he'd do if ordered to take part in an evacuation.

That's why the army avoided using units with a large proportion of religious soldiers during the Gaza pullout of 2005. Meanwhile, the national police made up a large part of the force that evacuated the Gaza settlers. Last winter, when the government declared a freeze on settlement construction, military Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi reiterated his view that the police, not the army, should handle any confrontations with settlers. The subtext is that the brass does not want to test whether discipline, corroded by the politics of occupation, would hold. By aiming a recruitment drive at the same ideological identified community, the police could acquire the same weakness.

In general, the military has made little effort to stop lawbreaking by settlers. The Elisha academy, where the new police recruits are to study, is a prime example. According to the government-commissioned Sasson Report of 2005 and to an army database, Elisha is an illegal outpost, a wildcat settlement built without the planning approval required by law. Nonetheless, according to the academy's 2007 financial report, the Israeli Education Ministry provides 40 percent of its budget. The Housing Ministry spent $300,000 on construction there, and the army allocates soldiers to guard the spot. At Elisha, future police commanders will get an unintended lesson that the rule of law can be put aside for political goals and for political groups favored by the government -- a lesson from the occupation that they will take with them to duties inside Israel.

Then there's the problem of signing people up. The police force lacks the army's cachet, to put it mildly. Israeli parents once told their children, "If you don't do your homework, you'll end up as a policeman." Yehonatan Chetboun, chair of the Raananim movement, which is working with the police on the project, explained to Olam Katan how he'd show young religious Zionists the importance of serving in the police: "I'll invite them for a nighttime patrol with me and the station commander in Lod or Ramle so they understand that the central issues facing the Israel Police are the most meaningful national issues." Lod and Ramle are cities where Palestinian citizens of Israel make up a large part of the population. The way to attract army veterans, in Chetboun's explanation, is to show them that police work inside Israel will be a seamless continuation of the ethnic conflict in occupied territory.

The new police program is one example of how the occupation comes home to Israel, undermining institutions and the rule of law, defining the relation between Jewish and Arab citizens as one of conflict, feeding political extremism. The effects of occupation and settlement can't be safely quarantined in occupied territory.

Back in 1968, only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, the Orthodox philosopher and dissident Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would "undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab." Leibowitz's warning has proved all too prophetic. One reason for reaching a two-state solution is to bring peace with the Palestinians. Another is to repair Israel itself.

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