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Far-right leader Baruch Marzel this week staged his second visit, backed by armed settlers, to the Arab town of Sakhnin in less than a month. He was kept to the edge of the Galilean town by police but allowed to take up position on elevated points so that he and his followers could photograph the area.
Marzel, a former head of the outlawed anti-Arab Kach party, is now a leader of the Jewish National Front, a group of far-right extremists. He was joined on the trip by Itamar Ben Gvir, a settler leader based in Hebron who is suspected of belonging to Jewish underground organisations.
Marzel and Ben Gvir said they wanted to tour Sakhnin as part of their bid to monitor illegal construction in Arab communities.
The pair and 50 followers tried to visit Sakhnin once before, on February 7, but were turned back by police. In a radio interview before that visit Ben Gvir warned that the group would be armed and would not hesitate to open fire if attacked. Most of the group have permits to carry guns because they live in the settlements.
The police relented on this second occasion after Marzel threatened to petition the High Court if his way was blocked.
The group’s goal appears twofold. First, as the spokesman of Sakhnin council, Ghazil Abu Raya, observed, they are trying to create “an unnecessary provocation”. Marzel and his followers want publicity for the causes of the hardline settlers, especially as the election draws near, and hope that a confrontation with Arab citizens will win them popular support.
And second, they are hoping to draw a parallel between unlicensed building in Arab communities and unlicensed construction in settlement outposts in the West Bank in the hope that it will garner sympathy for their claims that they are being discriminated against.
The settlers have been particularly motivated to draw such parallels since the government took an uncharacteristically harsh line in dismantling the outpost of Amona in the central West Bank on February 1. Marzel argues that, while illegally constructed buildings in Jewish settlements are bulldozed, illegally built buildings in Arab communities are allowed to stand.
By highlighting illegal building in Arab towns and villages, the settlers have everything to gain: either they will raise the pressure on the government to increase the number of house demolitions in Arab communities; or they will make keeping its promises to dismantle the settlement outposts - the only demand being made of Israel by Washington - far more difficult.
Marzel has pulled similar stunts before at election time. In January 2003, when he stood for the Herut party, he and MK Michael Kleiner made a “campaign stop” in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, again declaring that they were armed and there to inspect illegal construction.
But this time, after the Gaza disenagagement and the dismantlement of Amona, he has more support. Members of the Knesset from the far-right National Union party toured an unrecognised village in the Negev on February 5, again ostensibly to monitor illegal building.
Hasin el-Raafiyeh, chairman of the Council for Unrecognized Villages, all of which have no running water, electricity or other public services, criticised the MKs. “You came here to taunt us. See how the Bedouin live. Are you willing to live this way?”
El-Raafiyeh was highlighting the specious nature of the settlers’ comparison. Although the settlers’ very presence in the West Bank is illegal under international law, the overwhelming majority of their homes have been declared legal under Israeli law. Only a tiny number of houses have been refused permits in what the government calls “illegal outposts”, usually built on private land owned by Palestinians. Militant settlers knowingly choose to live in these outposts when they have many other places to live.
In Arab communities, on the other hand, the situation is very different. According to official statistics, there are tens of thousands of illegal Arab homes. Most are unlicensed because the planning authorities have refused to draw up master plans for Arab communities, making it near-impossible to receive permits for new house-builidng. Arab home-owners build on their own private land but cannot get a license to legalise their homes. In most cases, because 93 per cent of land in Israel is state-owned and reserved for Jews, they have nowhere else they can live.
The comparison being drawn by the settlers is a worrying trend. Some have already started privately asking why, if settlers were “transferred” from their homes in Gaza, is it not possible for Arabs to be transferred - that is, ethnically cleansed - from their homes inside Israel?
Marzel’s continuing freedom to spread his racist message is also a major cause for concern. According to files from the Kach party obtained three years ago by the Shin Bet secret service Marzel is still an active leader of Kach, despite the fact that it was outlawed as a terrorist organisation in 1994.
Justice Michael Cheshin, a judge who tried unsuccessfully to bar Marzel’s candidacy at the last general election, observed of the documents: “An examination of the material brought before us shows that Marzel is the leader, or one of the important leaders, of Kach. There is absolutely no doubt Marzel is [still] connected [to the movement] and … working for the same disgusting aims as in the past.”