Settlers up in arms as IDF bans West Bank tours led by civilians

Samaria council head calls decision ‘delusional’ after army requires all educational tours for troops in territory be guided by soldiers

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Israeli soldiers eating ice cream while waiting for a bus near Ramallah on October 1, 2009. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers eating ice cream while waiting for a bus near Ramallah on October 1, 2009. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Settler leaders slammed on Tuesday a command given by the IDF’s outgoing chief education officer banning civilians from guiding informational tours for soldiers in the West Bank.

“This is a delusional, Communist-Russia style decision designed to delegitimize and drive a wedge between citizens that live in Judea and Samaria and those who do not,” said Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

In an interview with the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday, Brig. Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk referred to the sensitive task of educating soldiers about the history of the West Bank land on which they are serving as a “vulnerability point.” Due to what he characterized as the territory’s deep complexity and sensitivity, Paz-Tzuk announced that starting in 2018, educational tours for soldiers in the West Bank will only be led by fellow uniformed conscripts.

A year and a half ago, Paz-Tzuk established a new educational branch of his unit to lead West Bank tours for soldiers with the stated goal of removing the IDF from the political debate over the future of the territories.

A number of settler organizations including a the Kfar Etzion Field School have for years been employed by the IDF to guide West Bank tours. Critics have challenged the bias of those educating new recruits, pointing out that many are active in the preservation and expansion of the politically-charged territory over the Green Line.

Dror Etkes of the Kerem Navot settler watchdog said the same is the case for tours for soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem which are often led by the right-wing Elad organization.

While the NGO’s central project is the renovation of the City of David archaeological park, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, it also contentiously purchases homes in the surrounding Arab village of Silwan and rents them to Jews, in what critics refer to as an attempt to Judaize East Jerusalem.

Soldiers of the Naval Unit seen at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during a tour in Jerusalem's Old City, April 12, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)
Soldiers of the Naval Unit seen at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during a tour in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 12, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)

“I’ve never been invited to lead tours for soldiers and also never will. Yet, to suggest that they are apolitical in nature is total nonsense,” Etkes added.

In a statement responding to Paz-Tzuk’s directive, Kfar Etzion Field School Director Yaron Rosenthal called the command “blatant discrimination.”

He argued that the tours for soldiers guided by civilians at the Yitzhak Rabin center are no less politically sensitive than those in Gush Etzion or Hebron.

Dagan also called it “inconceivable” that a well-trained guide from the West Bank is able to lead tours within the Green Line without personal politics being brought into question, while the same is not true for a Kfar Etzion Field School guide.

“I call on the chief of staff and the incoming chief education officer… not to let extreme radical elements like the outgoing chief education officer throw the IDF into an unnecessary political whirlwind,” Dagan said.

He also urged Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Avi Dichter (Likud) to convene an emergency session addressing the matter. Dichter is currently out of the country, but his office relayed to The Times of Israel that the “matter is being handled.”

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