PALM BEACH HOTEL, Gaza Strip (Jun. 30)
A trampled bed of geraniums, scattered mattresses in the parking lot and a forgotten baby seat were among the only visible remains of a massive Israeli raid on a Gaza beachfront hotel where Jewish extremists had bunkered down in a show of resistance against the government’s plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The intense show of force by the Israeli police and army Thursday — and the violent roadside scuffles between soldiers and settlers — may be a preview of what is to come as the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza approaches.
Some 700 Israeli security forces in riot gear swarmed the Palm Beach Hotel, which the group had renamed Sea Fortress.
After several days of spiraling violence along the Gaza beachfront, including an attempted lynching of a Palestinian teenager by young Jewish settlers, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the security establishment have decided to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward extremists.
“The battle now is not over the disengagement plan, but over the image and future of Israel, and under no circumstances can we allow a lawless gang to try to take control of life in Israel,” Sharon told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz in an interview published Thursday.
“The country’s citizens must understand this danger, and every measure must be taken to end this rampaging.”
The attack on the Palestinian teenager was condemned by settler leaders, who accused Israel of linking it unfairly to the nonviolent occupation of the Palm Beach Hotel by settler activists.
“These two events were unrelated, but the government is capitalizing on them in order to continue its campaign of delegitimizing the settlers,” said Gush Katif official Avner Shimoni.
Sharon’s strong comments followed an incident Wednesday, when Israeli police and troops stormed an abandoned building in Muwassi, a Palestinian village inside Gush Katif, to dislodge some 50 activists — many of them from the West Bank — who had scuffled with security forces and local Palestinians for days.
Also Wednesday there were demonstrations that blocked major highways throughout Israel, in which many of the participants were teenagers and children.
Over the past month, the Palm Beach Hotel had become home to about 150 people, some of whom belonged to the outlawed Kach extremist movement. Many others came from hard-line West Bank settlements.
Following Thursday’s raid, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the Israeli army commander in charge of the Gaza Strip, said, “We do not plan to let extremists return here and I hope that they do not come back.”
The official leadership of Gush Katif — a swath of Jewish settlements in the southern part of the Gaza Strip that contains the majority of the 7,500 Jewish residents of Gaza — had distanced itself from those at the hotel and the youths who took over the house in Muwassi.
Down the road from the hotel, Ze’ev and Yael Wolf, a young couple from the West Bank settlement of Karnei Tsur who had moved into the hotel just a few days ago, waited to go back to retrieve their belongings. They had been out running errands when the raid occurred.
“It was important to us to be in Gush Katif, to strengthen the area,” said Ze’ev Wolf. He said they came to prevent the withdrawal, “and we will do everything we can to do so.”
Hoping to prevent more extremists from entering, the army declared the Gaza Strip a closed military zone Thursday, preventing the entry of Israelis who are not residents. Army officials said they would assess the situation and determine how long to continue the closure, which allows only Gaza residents to move in and out of the area.
As many settlers from the area found themselves delayed, tempers flared under a baking sun at the Kissufim border crossing that leads to Gush Katif. One young woman who refused to give her name yelled at a soldier, telling him he was helping create a ghetto.
A distraught Michal Matliach from the Nezter Sereni settlement came to the crossing carrying garment bags containing her clothes for her son’s wedding the same night.
“I have 200 guests coming to a wedding tonight,” she wailed, asking soldiers how her friends and neighbors would be able to leave the Gaza Strip to attend the wedding in Israel. “Thirty years ago, we were good enough to send here, but now you are beating our children. Why?”
Meanwhile, young anti-withdrawal activists and settlers inside Gush Katif threw themselves in the road in front of buses transporting soldiers, police and evacuated residents of the hotel. As soldiers hauled them away, dragging some by their arms and legs, the protesters shouted the unofficial slogan of their cause: “A Jew does not expel a Jew.”
They also chanted, “Soldier, policeman, disobey orders,” referring to a call that Israeli security forces disobey orders to evacuate settlers from their homes once the scheduled withdrawal begins in mid-August.
In an attempt to prick the consciences of the soldiers, the protesters appealed to them as individuals not to take part in the withdrawal even as they were being wrestled to the ground by them.
One bearded protester, wearing a kipah and army T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, spoke to a soldier who was dragging him off the road saying, “Don’t do this. I have no intention of hurting another Jew. Let’s stop this together.”
At the hotel, posters still hung on the walls depicting a family of settlers at their front door facing a soldier in a combat helmet. Underneath was written the line the settlers hope to hear soldiers say, “Officer, I cannot do this.”
Earlier this week, before the evacuation, Gedalya Ginsburg, 63, who came to the hotel from the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, sat in the room he had fixed up and spoke about why he had come.
A plumber by trade, he decided he could best help the struggle against withdrawal by going to Gaza.
“If we lose here, the next war will be about Ashkelon and Beersheba,” he said, wearing paint-splattered work clothes.
He had been busy helping install proper plumbing and showers at the hotel, which had been defunct for several years, since the most recent intifada began. He also had looked on proudly as the new residents planted a palm tree sapling in the courtyard.
After the evacuation, the sapling stood in front of a sign that read, “We plant this new palm tree with the hopes that it will bring new life to this hotel and contribute to the building of the Gush Katif.”
Several feet from the palm tree, Maj. Gen. Uriel Bar-Lev, head of the southern police command, spoke to reporters and said the extremists had gone too far and would not be tolerated.
“Enough is enough,” he said.
JTA correspondent Dan Baron contributed to this report.