Jewish settlement leaders spent millions of dollars and recruited hundreds of thousands of supporters in a bogus civil disobedience campaign designed to facilitate the government plan to evict 16,000 Jews from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria in 2005.
The head of the effort testified that the year-long non-violent campaign organized by the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip was never intended to stop the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Instead, council leader Benzi Lieberman said the effort, coordinated with the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was staged to demonstrate that the destruction of 22 Jewish communities would not take place quietly.
“We tried to organize all the activities to influence the public to change decisions in the Knesset,” Lieberman said. “In the end, they make the decisions.”
“What was more important at that time and for history was that the protest would be huge and would imprint on the public consciousness that the expulsion of Jews could not pass just like that,” Lieberman added.
On October 26, Lieberman testified at the trial of three withdrawal protesters — Shai Malka, Ariel Vangrover and Adiel Sharabi — charged with sedition and incitment in connection with the blocking of Israeli highways as part of the civil disobedience campaign. Lieberman said that in contrast to the defendants the council coordinated efforts with the Sharon government as well as the police and military.
“People who recognize the democratic fights in other countries know that this [blocking of roads] is a relevant activity,” Lieberman said. “But we considered it ineffective.”
Lieberman and the other members of the council were never charged or prosecuted for their activities. On the eve of the expulsion, the council members were arrested on their way to enter the Gaza Strip, declared a closed military zone, and later released.
Unlike other protesters, some of whom have spent months in jail for the offense, the council members were never imprisoned. Malka, head of the newly-organized Bayit Leumi movement and Vangrover were arrested on May 15, 2005 and remained in prison until after the Israeli withdrawal. Sharabi was also arrested later. The state has rarely charged the Jews with sedition, punishable by five years in prison.
In his testimony, Lieberman, who said he did not know the defendants, outlined the council’s cooperation with the Sharon government. Lieberman, who reported frequent meetings with ministers and senior officials, said he informed and coordinated with police before and during every protest.
“Our policy was that we informed the police,” Lieberman said. “And it should be said that in this matter, the policy of the police was to permit us — that is also in places that they didn’t like so much or want it. They understood the power and the reality and the timing.”
Lieberman was not questioned regarding the source of funding for the sham civil disobedience campaign. In 2005, left-wing critics said the protests were financed through millions of dollars in government funding.
“In my estimation, the sources of the funds were state budgets slated for municipal uses and the rest from donations,” Knesset member Aryeh Eldad said.
Under cross-examination, Lieberman recalled the last major protest meant to block the expulsion. On July 20, 2005, the council organized a three-day march publicized as an attempt to enter the Gaza Strip and join Jewish residents threatened with eviction.
Lieberman said 100,000 people arrived at Kfar Maimon, far outnumbering the 15,000 police and soldiers. But he said the council — in coordination with the government — delayed the march to ensure its ineffectiveness.
“I remember we had a discussion with Gush Katif [Jewish community in Gaza] people,” Lieberman recalled. “They knew that we would begin Kfar Maimon, but in order not to disturb their lives, [we postponed it]. They knew that we would block the route and it would be very difficult for them to lead a normal life, especially the farmers. We thought that the earlier this activity would take place, the greater the impact on the public.”
The protesters waited at the agricultural community of Kfar Maimon for the order by Lieberman and his colleagues to march toward the Gaza Strip. Instead, after three days Lieberman, who said he coordinated the protest with the government, particularly then-Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, declared the protest over and sent the demonstrators home.
“In actuality, after we saw that 15,000 security forces were standing opposite us, about 5,000 police and 10,000 soldiers,” Lieberman said, “and after we checked in many circles and saw that the information was correct, we saw the determination of the police and the cruelty in their eyes. At that time, we understood that we might endanger lives and we decided on the same evening that we were going to march to Gush Katif, not to go head to head with the iron wall, That’s how we defined the security forces. A day or two later, the event was over.”
Lieberman’s assertion was in contrast to the insistence of police and officials that the settlement council refused to cooperate with authorities. At the time, Ezra, who visited Kfar Maimon during the protest, denied coordination with the settlement council.
“The settler leaders never came to me and if they did, the situation would not have been different,” Ezra said. “We would have not allowed the march to Gush Katif and Kissufim.”
The council’s anti-withdrawal campaign, Lieberman said, was designed to win support from within the Knesset and government. He said the settlement council — a body comprised of regional council heads financed by the Interior Ministry — feared a backlash against withdrawal opponents.
“The red line was violence,” Lieberman said. “There were some activities that we didn’t agree to –not because we thought that they were anti-democratic — but because we considered that they would be ineffective and they would arouse public consciousness that would negate our goals.”