KFAR MAIMON, Israel (Jul. 19)
Under sparse clumps of trees, thousands of antiwithdrawal activists who have gathered for a mass protest march to the Gaza Strip take refuge from the baking sun and vow to continue their struggle, no matter what. They arrived Monday from across the country — by bus, taxi, car and on foot — despite unprecedented efforts by police to block them, including declaring their planned march illegal.
Tensions ran high as thousands of police, braced for possible confrontations, were placed on the highest state of alert.
Dressed in orange — the color they’ve adopted for their struggle to prevent the Israeli government from uprooting thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank — the protesters are making a last stand.
“How could you not come when Jews living in the Land of Israel are being forced to move out of their homes?” asked Ya’akov Magness, 53, a clinical psychologist who traveled with his wife and daughter from their place of residence in the Golan Heights, far to the north.
The family, which camped out in a tent on Monday night, said they’ll stay as long as is necessary to show the government that the activists can’t be ignored. Many of the 7,000 or so protesters encamped in Kfar Maimon, a village about 12 miles from the Kissufim crossing into Gush Katif, the main Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza, were preparing to spend a second night there on Tuesday.
“There is the feeling that you must show your support and do something,” Magness, a Memphis native who immigrated to Israel in 1982, said as he sat under a black tarpaulin strung between trees on a grassy hill.
Some 20,000 sympathizers gathered Monday night for a mass rally in the nearby town of Netivot. Some then continued on to Kfar Maimon, but they were prevented by Israeli police from setting out for Gush Katif.
Police cordoned off the entire village to prevent the activists from marching on Gaza. About 20 protesters were arrested Tuesday after scuffles with officers. Several people, including police, suffered light injuries.
The government declared the Gaza Strip a closed military zone last week, allowing only residents to travel in and out. Decision makers feared that if they left the area open it would be flooded by antiwithdrawal activists, complicating the evacuation of Jewish settlements and military posts slated to begin in mid-August.
The decision to declare the march illegal was based on concerns that protesters would reach the fence surrounding Gush Katif and try to break through.
Meanwhile, the government’s unusually strong-armed approach to the protest drew fire in Israel. Police were ordered to stop buses en route to Monday night’s demonstration in Netivot, and they threatened to confiscate bus drivers’ licences — a move criticized not just by the right wing but by civil liberties groups and others.
Roadblocks were set up across the region to stop activists from reaching Netivot.
On Tuesday thousands of activists spent the day in Kfar Maimon attending lectures by rabbis at the local synagogue and resting on air mattresses and sleeping bags in whatever shade they could find. Tents were set up across wide swaths of lawn.
A large number of the protesters were teenagers — boys in orange knit kippot, some with their ritual fringes hung over orange Gush Katif T-shirts, and girls in long skirts and sandals with orange ribbons streaming from their wrists.
“We are religious, so we have a strong connection to the land. We are against giving any part of it away to someone else,” said Smadar Yechazkel, 16, who hitchhiked here after police halted the bus she and fellow youth-movement members had planned to travel in.
She said she was impressed by the large number of protesters who braved the journey and adapted to police interference in order to stand and be counted against the withdrawal.
“The people are the ones who should be deciding what happens. This gathering is to show the strength of the people,” Yechazkel said.
A settler leader, Pinchas Wallerstein, said he was determined to see the march toward the Gaza Strip take place.
“As long as this terrible decision stands, there will be a constant presence to prevent this,” Wallerstein told Israel Army Radio, referring to the August withdrawal plan.
Despite the tensions and uncertainty, the mood in Kfar Maimon was relaxed on Tuesday afternoon. Some children rode bikes with orange ribbons billowing from the handlebars. Others ate orange Popsicles and danced to religious music blasting from a van. Teenage boys danced in circles to the strains of “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Moshe Abouchatzeira, 56, a carpenter from Elon Shvut, a West Bank settlement, said that despite polls that show significant public support for the withdrawal, he feels most Israelis oppose it.
“We feel most of the people are with us, and no one can pull the wool over our eyes. We are determined to prevent any evacuation of any settlement in Israel,” he said.