THE SETTLERS GET
THEIR OWN ARMY
By Ze'ev Schiff
Before the Intifada broke out, a negative phenomenon began to develop in the territories concerning the organization of IDF units. By order of then-chief of staff Rafael Eitan, in the framework of the regional defense system, some units were composed entirely of Jewish settlers from beyond the Green Line. The negative aspect of this was the creation of military units with a single political hue, as opposed to all the other IDF units that consist of people coming from all shades of the political spectrum. There were those who dubbed these units the settlers' Palmach. In the case of the Palmach, however, those who enlisted came from settlements all over the country, whereas the settlers' units are also unique for their unity of geographical origin - the Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line, about which there is a public political debate. The danger was that the settlers' units would turn into political police with respect to the Palestinians. After Ha'aretz publicized this, the chief of the Central Command at the time, Amram Mitzna, took steps to break up the settlers' units. Regular army units were posted to the territories and served there for periods of about eight months at most, while reserve forces came from the general field corps. The regional defense made up of settlers carried out low-level security missions and the soldiers were for the most part at a low level of combat readiness. Care was taken so that they would not operate beyond the bounds of the settlements.
The turnabout occurred in the wake of the opening of the Hasmonean Tunnel in 1996. On orders from their superiors, Palestinian police opened fire. Fifteen IDF soldiers, 70 Palestinians and an Egyptian officer were killed in the confrontations. The IDF was deeply shaken and made operational changes as a result of the event. Considerations that previously held high priority, like those which had led Mitzna to break up the settlers' units, lost their importance.
In the IDF's top echelons, there are those who are therefore saying now that the Palestinians may believe that they have suffered "strategic damage" as the cumulative result of the operational changes in the territories. If the IDF thought in terms of reconciliation with the Palestinians, before the tunnel events, ever since then the thinking has been based on concepts of "battle and attack." This statement is of importance to those who argue that the Palestinians see the tunnel incidents as an achievement because they managed to inflict losses on the surprised IDF.
The organizational turnaround brought about the establishment of special forces among the settlers, a new kind of regional defense. After the IDF concluded that similar outbursts could take place in the future, it began to direct soldiers with a high level of combat readiness to regional defense, and this time all those soldiers reside in the settlements. If preference was given in the past to having those soldiers serve in combat field units elsewhere, now preference is given to having them serve in the regional defense of the settlements.
The outcome of this is that while in other units the call-up process for reserve service takes about 36 hours, as in the IDF as a whole, in the case of the settlers' units this call-up takes no more than 6 hours. An additional difference is that not all these units now serve within the settlements. While many of them are organized within the framework of units within the settlements, mobile units have also been established to secure the roads that link the settlements. There have also been additional changes in the organization of the forces in the territories, such as the allocation of 15 regular companies of Border Police for service in the West Bank. These companies are no longer limited to policing duties but reach the level of company maneuvers. These are changes intended to allow the IDF, in case of a conflagration, to deal with an external threat while the new force in the settlements deals immediately with the Palestinians.
What Mitzna feared before the Intifada is now happening in full. It has even expanded. Moreover, the direct command of these units is entirely in the hands of officers who are settlers themselves. The commander of the Israeli army forces in Judea and Samaria, Major General Yitzhak Eitan, has no reservations about units with a single political hue, the hue in this case being right-wing and even extreme right-wing. Eitan trusts the settler-soldiers not to misuse the authority the IDF has given them with respect to sensitive security issues. He says that there has been only one case, several months ago, in which a reserve soldier from one of these units stood trial after he opened fire without permission. Not everyone in the security establishment agrees with him.
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