Willed Amnesia

The amnesty law is impressive in its brevity, in its focus, and most of all in its terrible audacity. Passed by Israel's Parliament this week, it is barely two pages long. It wipes clean the criminal records of one very specific group of political protesters: those arrested while trying to block Ariel Sharon's unilateral evacuation of Israel's Gaza Strip settlements in the summer of 2005. The legal system will forgive and forget the young ultra-nationalists who insisted that the divine imperative to settle the Whole Land of Israel trumped other law, and who in some places turned the pullout into a mob confrontation with Israeli police and soldiers, televised globally.

The amnesty, I need to note, does not cover those convicted of the most serious offenses, such as aggravated assault, or those sentenced to actual jail time. Nonetheless, it reportedly applies to 400 of 482 people charged for their role in the anti-pullback turmoil. It does, for instance, cover those who entered the Gaza Strip illegally as well as those who rioted after being ordered to disperse -- two of the standard charges reported at the time. At just one settlement, Kfar Darom, 245 people were arrested after barricading themselves in the synagogue and hurling everything from light bulbs to toxic acid at police who came to evacuate them. Some, it seems likely, faced watered-down charges and received light sentences that will now be erased from their records.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, author of the legislation, spoke of national reconciliation. The amnesty will "repair the rift and heal the deep wound in Israeli society caused by the disengagement," he said. Rivlin was quoted at greatest length by the West Bank settlers' Arutz Sheva news Web site, under a headline that referred to the withdrawal as "the Uprooting."

That fits a wider story line. Since the pullout, the settlers and their political backers have been engaged in rewriting what happened, in creating something roughly parallel to the American South's pernicious "lost cause" narrative the Civil War. In the Israeli version, the only people hurt by settlement in Gaza were the settlers, whose ideal communities have been lost forever. Those who fought the withdrawal demonstrated their patriotism, so the story goes, and should be lauded. This story, of course, isn't just about the past. It's a direct effort to determine Israel's policy toward the future of the West Bank.

A reminder: The plan for an Israeli pullout from Gaza was announced in February 2004 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, previously an outspoken advocate of Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip. On one hand, Sharon showed pragmatic recognition that the military and diplomatic price of occupying and settling Gaza had become too high. On the other, he deluded himself that exiting Gaza would relieve international pressure for a full pullback from the West Bank.

The Gaza settlers, their West Bank allies, and right-wing religious supporters inside Israel responded with an eerie mix of protest and certainty that God would not let the withdrawal take place. A campaign on the right raised money to lend to settler farmers in Gaza to finance their next crop, since for some reason banks refused to extend the farmers their usual credit. In two attacks aimed at stopping the pullout, lone Jewish terrorists murdered a total of eight Arabs, inside Israel and in the West Bank. The organized, mass efforts to block the pullout reached a crescendo at the Kfar Darom synagogue.

Since then, the right has built the "uprooting" narrative on two pillars. One is the evacuees' readjustment problems. The other is the Hamas takeover of Gaza and rocket fire from the Strip into Israel. Examined closely, both pillars are riddled with cracks.

Despite generous compensation, many of the former Gaza settlers have had trouble finding permanent homes and new livelihoods. That's partly due to bureaucratic snafu. But before evacuation, many of the settlers refused to talk to the officials in charge of helping them. The evacuation itself assailed their certainty that they were serving Israel by living in Gaza. Neither they nor their supporters have come to terms with the injustices on which their small, intimate communities were built. Nine thousand settlers controlled over a quarter of the Gaza Strip's land, with more than a million Palestinians in the remainder. Settler farmers employed Palestinian field hands at a fraction of the Israeli minimum wage. The government subsidized their communities; Israeli soldiers and reservists guarded them. Their trauma is their loss of privilege and of meaning.

As for the continued conflict in Gaza, it's a result of Sharon's insistence on a unilateral pullout. A negotiated withdrawal would have added to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' legitimacy and popularity. But a peace deal with Abbas would have required Sharon to agree to a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank -- exactly what he sought to avoid. In Palestinian eyes, the unilateral withdrawal looked like a victory for Hamas' strategy of armed struggle. Hamas won the next Palestinian election, then seized control of Gaza.

The uprooting narrative avoids such complexities. Rather than the occupation causing the rifts in Israeli society, it says, an unnecessary withdrawal is to blame. Settlers are the victims, as are the violent young protesters. The amnesty enacted by the Knesset will mend the rift. With the blemish of a criminal record removed, young patriots will be able to perform their military service in respected combat units and advance to the officer corps -- where they may refuse orders to take part in any future evacuation of settlements. But then, the whole point of the uprooting story is to make sure that another evacuation will never happen, to keep Israel permanently entangled in the West Bank.

Reconciliation is indeed valuable. But this is a reconciliation without truth, aimed at perpetuating a greater conflict. The uprooting narrative hides the moral and political dangers of Israeli rule over the Palestinians. Amnesty is always a form of willed amnesia. Sometimes that's positive. In this case, it clouds not only the past but the present. It is forgetfulness at much too high a price.

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