Slain settlers burial brings tensions to light

HEBRON — Netanel Ozeri's lifeless head bounced against the hard canvas of a stretcher as friends bore his corpse through Hebron's muddy hills, making a mad dash to avoid police and soldiers so they could bury Ozeri at the illegal settlement outpost he established a few years ago.

Ozeri, 34, a leading activist in the extremist Kach movement, was murdered by Palestinian terrorists last Friday evening on the doorstep of his isolated home outside Kiryat Arba.

However, it was only after a 16-hour long funeral — in which his corpse essentially was kidnapped three times — that Ozeri finally was buried in the ancient cemetery in Hebron.

Israelis were shocked by the images of Ozeri's corpse, swaddled in a bloodstained prayer shawl and with his face intentionally exposed to the elements.

On Monday, Israeli newspapers carried banner headlines with statements such as "Disgrace of the Dead," and blared page-sized pictures of the corpse in various stages of Sunday's odyssey.

The episode reminded Israelis of the explosive domestic issues — such as the fate of the settlements and the civil disobedience of the radical settler hard core — that they may have to deal with after Tuesday's elections and an anticipated U.S.-led war on Iraq.

The funeral also displayed the internal schisms in the settlement movement, between a hard core of activists and extremists, which has frequently come to blows with Israeli soldiers and police, and the movement's mainstream leadership.

The chairman of the Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, has pledged that, if elected, he will withdraw from most of the West Bank within a year, even without a peace agreement. Mitzna, however, is not expected to win the elections.

U.S. officials also have intimated that once an expected war against Iraq is over, the Bush administration will come out much more strongly against Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With the fate of the settlement enterprise in the balance, the extremists feel duty-bound to take action to establish facts on the ground, even at the cost of disobeying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, which is expected to win the elections.

The fervor of the extremist wing, which has established illegal outposts throughout the West Bank and has clashed with soldiers sent to dismantle them, was evident at the funeral early Monday morning.

Eulogizing his friend Ozeri, activist Michael Ben Horin called on settler youth to "rise up, you mountain lion cubs, and avenge Netanel creatively, with vengeance against your enemies, and God will be with us."

Ben Horin blamed former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the Palestinian intifida — for having given weapons to the Palestinian Authority.

Ben Horin and his youthful followers also chanted against the "leftist Sharon" government, which they say goes too easy on the Palestinians.

One of the settler youth then told the raging crowd, "We won't take part in their degenerate Western game of 'elections.' That's how we'll pull the rug out from under their feet."

Others called for "sweet revenge. They shouldn't say vengeance is not ours."

Disgust with the episode cut across partisan lines; the Yesha Council, the governing body of the 200,000-strong settlement movement, said by Sunday night that it wanted to cut any ties to such "half-crazed hoodlums."

Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor Yosef also described the episode as "sacrilege against the dead."

Asked if his council had tried to mediate between the groups, Yosef replied, "These are not people you can talk with. They ignored the police, the army, the rabbis," he said. "They were completely out of control, leaving the orphans to chase around the body of their father through the hills."