My research here in Israel focuses on the relationship between Israeli public opinion and government policy on territorial concessions. In my studies, I have interviewed people across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right and just about every point in-between.
Although their specific policy preferences and objectives have varied considerably, all have been passionately engaged in the question of Israel’s territorial future. One theme which has regularly arisen is that of the 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza, known in Hebrew as the hitnatkut (cutting oneself off) or gairush (expulsion). One’s political views on the event can be quickly discerned from word choice. Those who express the former see the disengagement as a necessary removal of Israeli control over a hostile territory while those who express the latter see it as a criminal wrenching of fellow Jews from their homes.
What many people do not realize is that even within the apparently pro-settlement camp, there was a great deal of debate, uncertainty, and disagreement about how to respond to the government’s plan to evict Gush Katif’s approximately 8000 Jewish residents. One of the most significant splits which occurred in the camp as a result of the expulsion was a rejection by many settlers of the organizational body which they once believed represented them: the Yesha Council.
The Council’s leadership, although publically opposed to the disengagement, coordinated and cooperated with the government. They did this both in terms of the organization of public protest and ensuring the eventual, largely peaceful acquiescence by protesters to the expulsion itself. The leadership has insisted that its actions were necessary to prevent fratricidal violence and chaos in the face of an already traumatic and not decisively popular government action. Opponents accused the leadership of abandoning the settlement enterprise, putting loyalty to the government above Jewish law, and squandering what could have been a successful and reasonably popular effort to block the disengagement altogether.
I have encountered both perspectives in my many interviews with former Yesha Council officials, members of Knesset, and settlement activists. There is certainly plenty of bitterness to go around. Indeed, the divisions which manifested themselves during the disengagement are still apparent. It can be found in the weakening of the influence of the Yesha Council over political action in Judea and Samaria, the turnover in the council’s own leadership, the increasing political influence of regional councils like the Shomron Regional Council vis-à-vis Yesha, the rise in prominence and activity of independent activist groups, and the continued division among the “pro-settlement” religious leadership.
It was therefore very interesting to me when my friend Ya’aqov who blogs at Esser Agaroth told me about the documentary Meraglim about the dubious role of the Yesha Council leadership in the Gaza Disengagement. The film is named for the spies who were sent into Canaan upon the Israelites’ arrival on the borders of the future Land of Israel. Bringing back fearful and pessimistic accounts of the strength and might of the land’s inhabitants, the people turned against their leadership and were divinely punished that they would not be able to enter the land.
While the film is certainly bombastic and has no pretentious of being an “unbiased” account of the events leading up to the expulsion, it offers an important glimpse into the divisions which exist in the pro-settlement camp today. Indeed, the film’s political and religious themes will be unpalatable to many. The movie too perhaps unfairly presents the council’s leadership as the unqualified “bad guys” of the disengagement narrative. Yet it does make clear that critical tensions existed for the leadership between their expressed commitment to settle the land and their desire to prevent fratricidal divisions.
At a running time of around 40 minutes, this film is well-worth viewing for anyone interested in exploring the deeper contours of conflict and compromise in Israel’s pro-settlement community. If you already disagree with the message of the movie, do not expect to come away convinced otherwise. But if you want a greater understanding of the real hurt and betrayal felt by many Israelis as a result of the disengagement, this is an important film. Again, Ya’aqov has posted the film in four parts here on Esser Agaroth.