Settlers Outfitted with Military Training, Equipment Thanks to US Tax-Deductible Donations
News about the Israeli military arming and training the settlers raised international and Israeli attention last week and set off alarms amongst anti-occupation activists. This reinforcement of the well-known army-settler alliance is part, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, of Operation Summer Seeds, the military name given to Israel’s preparations for “mass disorder” that Israeli authorities believe could follow UN recognition of a Palestinian state later this month. So who are these settlers in the frontline of an eventual Israeli armed reaction to possible Palestinian protests?
They are normally part of groups called Rapid Response Teams, at least one of which exists in each settlement in the occupied Palestinian territory. Some of the teams are connected to the electric fence system, so they can react immediately to a breach in the military designed perimeter of their settlement. They are supposed to withdraw when Israeli soldiers arrive at the scene.
These first-response “guards” are volunteer civilians, mostly army reservists under the command of a chief security officer, who is a public servant and the official link with the Israeli military. Though some international media portray these groups as being formed following the second Intifada, these types of militias actually go back even before 1948, with the Defense Committees of the kibbutzim and later of Israel’s small towns, villages and settlements.
In the occupied Palestinian territory most male adult settlers can carry guns and some even choose rifles, but the Rapid Response Teams are something different. They receive their M-16 rifles from the Israeli army while training and other specialized equipment comes from NGOs like Mishmeret YESHA. This nonprofit organization manufactures and distributes armored vests, ballistic helmets and special communications equipment and trains the “civil guards” and Yeshiva students in the use of arms and “counter-terrorism” tactics in improvised shooting ranges.
The only condition of Mishmeret YESHA is that it does not work with settlements or institutions that employ or include Palestinians. “There is no sense in training a rapid response team in a settlement or an institution where you have a bunch of Arabs walking around gathering information”, stated the founder, Israel Danziger, to the Jerusalem Post in 2008.
The money to finance Mishmeret YESHA’s training and equipment comes primarily from private donations. In 2004 alone, the Central Fund of Israel raised nearly US $107,000 for Mishmeret’s efforts and the Israel Independence Fund, an organization registered in New York, has Mishmeret listed amongst its most important projects.
For example, it costs $68,000 to sponsor the equipping and training of a Rapid Response Team for a whole settlement. If this is too much for the American or Israeli family budget in these times of economic crisis, they can sponsor a sole member of the team for $5,000. The list of prices goes down to $250 for a ballistic helmet.
These ‘sponsorships’ are considered as donations under American law and as such, are tax deductible – even if the money is used to buy rifle shoulder rests, a telescopic lens or infra-red binoculars. This is the case of the Nablus-area settlement of Elon Moreh and its nonprofit organization Friends of Elon Moreh, based in Passaic Park, New Jersey. According to its webpage: “Aside from the basic army equipment, the team needs special equipment which can help them in emergency situations”. The team, as a picture shows, is composed of 20 young adults, all religious, dressed in military-green and blue, armed with M-16, radios and armored vests.
This experience was considered so successful by the settlers and their American donors that they decided to export it to the forests of upstate New York. Kitat Konenut is devoted to prepare Jewish communities in the US for an eventual “anti-Semitic outbreak”. As the Jerusalem Post published three years ago, the organization charges $400 for a ten day training in the Catskills woodlands, on the property of a Jewish supporter. Some of the instructors are Israeli military veterans, who teach the young Americans to be ready for all kinds of threats, from a knife fight to “urban warfare”.
There is no other documented case in the United States of a foreign civilian armed force being equipped and trained publicly by American society through “donations”, which on top of everything benefit from tax deductions. And it is even rarer that in this age of the War on Terror and home-grown terrorism, the American authorities allow their citizens to openly train in urban warfare tactics. Yet additional proof of the special American-Israeli relationship.