JERUSALEM (AP) – The Israeli military has long had a cozy relationship with Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Those ties will deepen.
For the first time, a settler will serve as Israeli army chief of staff and become the enforcer of Israel’s open occupation of the West Bank, now in its 56th year.
The appointment of Maj. Gene. Herzi Halevi was approved on Sunday and he is expected to start his three-year term on January 17.
Halevi’s rise is the culmination of the settler movement’s decades-long transformation from a small group of religious ideologues into a diverse and influential force at the heart of the Israeli mainstream whose members have reached the highest ranks of government and other key institutions.
Critics say the settlers’ excessive political influence jeopardizes any hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state and jeopardizes the country’s future as a democracy. They say Halevi’s appointment reveals just how interconnected settlers and the military really are.
“It’s not surprising 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, has had an impressive military career and that his place of residence will not influence his decision-making. He served as head of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, as well as military intelligence and led the Southern Command, from which he oversaw operations in the Gaza Strip.
Defense Secretary Benny Gantz praised Halevi as an ethical officer. “I have no doubt that he is the right man to lead the army,” Gantz said when nominating him.
The military refused to make Halevi available for an interview.
Born just months after the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel conquered the West Bank, and raised in Jerusalem, Halevi is a descendant of a rabbi considered the father of the modern settler movement.
Halevi lives in Kfar HaOranim, a settlement that borders the invisible border between Israel and the West Bank.
Many of those moving to Kfar HaOranim may have been attracted by cheaper housing prices in a central location between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, rather than by a radical ideology. Yet the choice to live in a settlement often even indicates a nationalistic political inclination. Many Israelis are still hesitant to visit parts of the West Bank.
A search through some of Halevi’s previous speeches and public statements failed to reveal his views on the Jewish settlement enterprise.
The settler movement embraced the incoming 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 also includes Kfar HaOranim. He said he expects every chief of staff to act with a belief in the “justice” of Jewish settlement and “deepening the roots” of Jewish settlers.
Palestinians want the West Bank as 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, living 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 managed by the Palestinian Authority.
Much of the international community views the settlements as illegitimate and obstacles to peace, while Israel views the area as its biblical heartland and crucial to security.
A bipartisan 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 controls parts of the West Bank, but is hampered in many ways by the occupation.
For Palestinians, soldiers are the most visible enforcers of the occupation. Under international law, an occupying army is intended to protect civilians under its rule, but Palestinians typically view soldiers as hostile to them.
Soldiers man the checkpoints that Palestinians have to pass through to enter Israel or the checkpoints set up between their cities disrupting their journey. Soldiers often make arrests in autonomous Palestinian territories in search of suspected militants. Palestinians accused of violence are tried, and almost always convicted, in military courts. Israel considers those measures essential to its security.
Critics also say the military is turning a blind eye to settler violence against Palestinians, which has increased in recent months, including rampages that also target soldiers. In one case last week, a security guard was seen on a Defense Ministry salary join forces with a settler clash with Palestinians.
For settlers, the military supports their presence in the West Bank. Soldiers protect settlements. The military escorts settlers when they want to visit sensitive sites or hold a march or protest. A defense body headed by a general is responsible for approving settler housing, and some of the top army commanders are settlers.
Oded Revivi, mayor of the Efrat settlement, said he did not believe Halevi’s residence would affect the way he led the army in the West Bank, which he says is determined 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 achieved key positions in Israeli institutions.
The country’s current list of Supreme Court justices includes at least two settlers. Colonial politicians have long served as cabinet ministers, including Avigdor Lieberman, who was Israel’s minister of foreign affairs, defense and finance. Settlers have held key positions in cultural institutions and in agencies that allocate land. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was previously a settler leader, although he did not live in a settlement.
That integration, part of a longstanding collective effort by settlers, is hardly questioned by the Israelis.
Many Israelis pay little attention to the occupation, and the news media often ignores approval of new settler housing unless reprimanded internationally. And pushback against the settlers’ narrative is often officially silenced. Schools in liberal Tel Aviv were recently banned from displaying maps demarcating the West Bank, indicating it’s different from Israel.
The world of culture, once a mainstay of liberalism and Israel’s dovish left, has embraced settlers, featuring them in reality TV shows, as performers and musicians increasingly agree to perform in settlements or accept funding from settler sponsors. . A popular rocker who had often denounced settlers apologized to them at a recent concert at the Beit El settlement.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian commentator, said having a settler as chief of staff raises concerns that the military’s dealings with Palestinians will worsen, further entrench the Israeli occupation and make the creation of a Palestinian state all the more unlikely. .
“There’s a fiction that people in the international community seem to have that somehow there’s Israel and then there’s the settlements — like they’re separate and separate from each other,” she said. “But in reality we see that it is all one.”
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