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The Disengagement Summer Tensions Rise with the Temperature As Israelis Creep Toward the Unknown

August 4, 2005
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Opinions on Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip pile up even higher than the helpings of Dorit Daniel’s stuffed zucchinis at a family dinner. “I feel terrible things are about to happen,” says Daniel, 57, who is adamantly in favor of the withdrawal scheduled to begin in mid-August but fears the internal fallout could be disastrous.

“I’m most fearful about someone from one side or another getting shot — that could lead to civil war,” she says, cradling her head in her hands as she sits at the table of her home in Kibbutz Mabarot, located in the center of the country, near Netanya.

Her 24-year-old son, who asked not to be identified because he recently completed his army service in an elite unit, argues that the unilateral pullout of forces from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank is a mistake. He says evacuating the approximately 9,000 Jewish settlers who live there and the soldiers who protect them could lead to a security vacuum and greater instability.

Across Israel, tensions are rising along with the soaring summer heat as the country barrels towards the unknown.

Israelis — young and old, religious and secular, left and right — anxiously wait to see where the withdrawal will lead. The debate over possible scenarios rages everywhere from Shabbat dinners to cafes to supermarket checkout lines.

Will Israel, they wonder, see a traumatic face-off between fellow citizens, increased Palestinian mortar attacks, or other forms of terrorism? Or will they see a relatively smooth return of settlers to homes inside Israel’s 1967 borders and a Palestinian-ruled Gaza that develops and grows into a positive test case for statehood?

On a busy intersection near Tel Aviv’s main train station, young and old pass out colored ribbons: Those in favor of the pullout hand out blue ribbons, representing the color of Israel’s flag; the ribbons distributed by those opposed are bright orange, the official color of their struggle.

On a metal traffic sign, two opposing posters hang one on top of the other: “The Majority Decides — We Are Leaving Gaza,” reads one; the other says: “Disengagement Will Lead to Terror.”

Israel’s religious Zionist community is becoming increasingly distraught over the planned withdrawal. Most adherents view the events of this summer as both defining and potentially disastrous. For many, the very core of their beliefs — that the biblical Land of Israel is their birthright, promised to them by God — has come under assault by the secular establishment.

“I pray with all my heart that everything will end peacefully. It will be very difficult” if the withdrawal happens, says Esther Reznikov, a 19-year-old religious graphics student from Tel Aviv, while passing out orange ribbons to people in cars at a busy intersection.

“If I did not have faith in the land and in God, I’m not sure I would even be able to continue living in a place that could betray you in such a way,” she says.

At the same intersection, Amiram Raber, 37, passes out blue ribbons.

“It’s crazy to think we can stay there and deny the existence of one million Arabs,” says Raber, who works with computers.

The national mood swung into heightened tension and uncertainty at the end of July when thousands of anti-withdrawal activists poured into the sleepy, southern village of Kfar Maimon in an effort to have their message of dissent heard by both the Israeli government and the country’s citizens.

The police quickly deemed the large gathering illegal, citing the group’s plans to march to Gaza — now declared a closed military zone ahead of the August withdrawal.

In a difficult three-day face-off among protesters, police and soldiers that eventually ended peacefully, the anti-withdrawal activists, many of them Orthodox Jewish settlers from the West Bank, showed their determination not to let the Gaza and northern West Bank withdrawal pass without a serious struggle.

Sarah Kronish, 36, her hair covered with an orange head scarf, went to Kfar Maimon from the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut along with her husband and five children, ranging in age from 9 months to 10 years old.

“We cannot sit at home and continue our normal lives,” said Kronish, her hands resting on a baby stroller full of provisions. “Today it is Gush Katif. Tomorrow it could be Gush Etzion, where I live,” she said, referring to a major West Bank settlement bloc near Jerusalem.

On television, Israelis saw close-up the psychological battle of attrition being waged by the anti-withdrawal activists against the security forces. The video images became routine but distressing for many Israelis to watch — protesters swathed in orange approaching individual soldiers and police, asking them if they were ashamed to be carrying out the government’s orders. “A Jew does not expel a Jew,” they said, repeating the dramatic words of 19-year-old Cpl. Avi Bieber that became the slogan of the pro-settler movement.

A soldier in Kfar Maimon, angered by the constant repetition of the anti-withdrawal mantra, reportedly said, “A Jew doesn’t make another Jew stay over in the army on Shabbat, either.”

In another sign of discontent with the same settler slogan, a new bumper sticker was recently distributed: “A Jew does not expel a Jew, he just moves him a little bit.”

Michael Feige, a sociologist at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute who studies Israeli identity, says the country’s population can be divided into three distinct groups on the withdrawal issue: the national religious community, their supporters, and the majority of Israelis, whose politics are to the center or left.

For the national religious, “this is a great tragedy and a dramatic event in Israeli history,” Feige says. Their supporters — mostly people who live in development towns and other religious Israelis — are more passive in their protests, even though they agree that the Gaza pullout is a major event that should be halted, he says.

“The rest of Israeli society sees it as a dramatic reality show occurring in front of them,” he says.

In her home in Givatayim, a leafy Tel Aviv suburb, Anita Noam, 79, says she has sympathy for the settlers who will have to leave their homes but is alarmed by some of the verbal and physical violence that has accompanied their protests.

“I fear this could lead to civil war,” she says.

“I think of how many times I had to leave my home without a choice,” says Noam, who was born in Trieste, Italy, and was forced to flee the approaching German army during World War II. During Israel’s War of Independence, she was again forced to flee Jerusalem because of fighting there.

She says she wishes the settlers “just understood that there is no choice but to go if we are ever to have peace.”

In the streets of Jerusalem, meanwhile, many Israelis are staunchly opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plans for the withdrawal.

“I think it’s unthinkable to give even a small portion of the Land of Israel away; only God has the right to do that,” says an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, who would only give her first name, Marina. “Giving it away will not even help the situation. The Arabs will only ask for more.”

At a sidewalk restaurant, two friends who work as taxi drivers argue over the issue.

“You know things are bad when you see Jews being forced to leave their homes. I want to see someone even try to evacuate an Arab from Jaffa,” says Avitan Bota, 29.

Not only is the situation leading to division in the country, he adds, but it is giving the Arabs “a gift for free” that will enable them to “strike us from even closer.”

His friend Gabriel Hadad, 44, counters: “I’m for disengagement if it means soldiers will stop being killed there. I hope the move will lead to better times and the tensions will dissipate as they did after we left Lebanon.”

Up north, in Haifa, a retired teacher, Nurit Goldberg, 65, says it is impossible to avoid the feeling of tension in the country.

“I think we should not disengage without anything in return. I think the withdrawal will lead to more terror and a much worse situation,” she says.

In contrast, Berta Hinden, 89, a Holocaust survivor from Latvia, sitting in her art-filled Tel Aviv apartment, says she sees hope in Israel’s leaving Gaza.

“As Jews we just want to live in peace and quiet already,” she says.

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