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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1999, pages 26, 94

The Ostrovsky Files

Combat Units Manned by West Bank Settlers Puts Trojan Horse Within the Future Palestinian State

By Victor Ostrovsky

Several weeks ago the Israel Defense Force (IDF) announced its decision to allow reserve combat personnel who are residents of the West Bank to do their annual military reserve service in units posted in the West Bank.

In fact settlers have been doing just that for quite some time, working as clerks and in other non-combat jobs in military government offices in the occupied territories. The new innovation is that from now on Jewish West Bank settlers can serve not only in administrative positions within units based in the territories—but also in first-line combat units created and manned by Israeli residents of the occupied territories.

At first glance, the move appears to be a reasonable response to shrinking military budgets. What could be more convenient than having reserve units train in proximity to their dwellings? It would save on transportation and other costs, not to mention shortening response time in case of an emergency.

For Israelis living within Israel’s Green Line borders (not in the occupied territories, that is), this is a perfect solution. Let Jews who want to live in the West Bank or Gaza protect themselves—especially since there is a great deal of dissatisfaction within Israeli reserve units forced to serve in the West Bank as babysitters for the settlers.

The IDF did not explain all of this in its short announcement, but left economic and political speculation concerning the new policy to the commentators, hoping they would ignore this item as unnewsworthy.

Hiding this monumental move in plain sight has worked. The announcement was accepted as a matter of fact by the Israeli media as well as the Palestinian Authority. It appears that no one has paid any attention to the move’s significance.

Had any of the Israeli media outlets, or members of the Israeli opposition, not to mention the Palestinian Authority, examined this move closely, they would have realized it was probably the Israeli government’s most dangerous step taken against the peace process, and a milestone in changing the Middle East balance of power as we know it.

This statement might sound dramatic, but if one examines the possible outcome, and recognizes the zeal of the players in the game, it is not at all far-fetched.

Examining the Facts

By no means can such a move be regarded as economical. In fact it is an extravagance to allow reserve combat personnel to serve in units that are close to their homes. To begin with, the military must first create such units, as they do not yet exist.

In order for such units to function, the army must build a specialized infrastructure, including supply depots and weapons and munitions storage facilities. There must also be a command center with support organizations—intelligence, engineering, transportation and armored units and a communication center.

In addition, IDF will have to reshuffle many of its non-West Bank-based combat units to release and replace the settlers from their existing posts.

Not only will the costs increase, but it goes against the IDF’s fundamental combat premise of a flexible, mobile army. Since the IDF draws its strength from its mobility and flexibility, it attempts to train all of its combat units to fight in any terrain. In all of Israel’s wars, fighting units usually served on several fronts in a matter of days.

In addition to the economic and military doctrines that are being broken by this decision, there is a critical one that strikes at the heart of the IDF’s existence as the people’s army. And that is its apolitical base.

When the IDF was formed in 1948, it was made clear that this army would not tolerate units that have a political affiliation. This brought about the breaking up of the PALMACH, which was the pre-independence fighting arm of the Haganah. By the same token, members of the right-wing undergrounds such as the ETZEL (Irgun Zvai Leumi) and the LEHI (Stern Gang) were scattered among various units in the newly formed army.

Now, however, all this will be left by the wayside as the IDF forms combat units which will consist almost exclusively of settlers. Members of these groups will not only be homogenous in their geographical boundaries, but also in their extreme right-wing orientation.

This will create nothing short of a localized militia. Its members will be wearing the IDF’s uniform and emblems, but in the best-case scenario they may ignore orders not in synch with the leaders of the settlement movement, and in the worst-case scenario they may obey only such leaders.

This will create nothing short of a localized militia.

Could such problems have been overlooked by the Israeli government? They could have escaped the unfocused gaze of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but it was not likely that Ariel Sharon, the extremist general and strategist, was unaware of them. Instead it is more likely that that is the reason he so willingly signed on to the Wye agreement. It is possible that Sharon realized there was no point in openly resisting the “peace process,” so instead he resorted to creation of this settlers’ army within the Israeli armed forces.

Most Israelis say that the creation of a Palestinian state is an inevitability. They say that there is nothing that can stop it now, and I agree. At the same time it would be unrealistic to think that the settlers are unaware of this fact and are not planning their next step. The IDF move, therefore, is that next step.

Now, when the Palestinian Authority declares the Palestinian state, there will be present in the territory it claims, a settler army that seems small compared to the IDF as a whole, but which is much bigger than anything the Palestinian Authority will have.

If the Palestinians sought to reclaim any or all of the Jewish settlements occupying so much of the West Bank, this “small” army could itself strike and attempt to occupy the entire West Bank and declare the state of Judea in the West Bank. This state would then ask for recognition and might be automatically recognized by Israel. (During the period of the second temple, there were two Jewish states, Israel and Judea, living next to each other.)

Should the scales turn against the “rebels,” Israel could interfere, saying that it is obligated to protect the Jewish settlers.

On the other hand, if the settlers gained the upper hand and other Arab states attempted to intervene, Israel could say that it is an internal Palestinian problem and threaten any Arab intervention with an Israeli military response.

All this may explain why Netanyahu is so willing to face the consequences of so obviously stalling completion of final status talks, and why Sharon seems to be cooperating in the kind of withdrawals of Israeli forces that he has spent his entire military and political career opposing.

Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad case officer, has written two books about his experiences, By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer and The Other Side of Deception: A Rogue Agent Exposes the Mossad’s Secret Agenda.