Unsettled in Gaza

Closing time: Jewish settlers have imposed their trademark orange on a poster of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with the words
Closing time: Jewish settlers have imposed their trademark orange on a poster of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with the words "Orange will prevail." Sharon has ordered Israeli soldiers to evict settlers who refuse to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. (Evicting Settlers From The Former Palm Beach Hotel, June 30/By Shaul Schwarz -- Getty Images)
By Warren Bass
Sunday, July 17, 2005


"We failed in Yamit," Nadia Matar warned, "but we're not going to fail again." The veteran far-right activist looked out at a roomful of young men, most of them bearded yeshiva students from Jerusalem, sitting on dirty mattresses or the cold floor of the wrecked reception area of the Palm Beach Hotel.

The 38-year-old Matar, who is bitterly opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate Jewish settlements in Gaza, had chosen her metaphor carefully: As defense minister in 1982, Sharon had overseen the flattening of Yamit, a Jewish settlement in Sinai, when Israel traded the peninsula back to Egypt for a peace treaty. Now, with the Sharon government set to withdraw from Gaza in mid-August, Matar and some 150 other radicals had, with the permission of the bankrupt hotel's absentee owner, turned the derelict white compound into a squatter citadel and renamed it Maoz Hayam, Hebrew for "fortress by the sea."

Matar, who had moved to Gaza from a West Bank settlement with her six children, bragged that her group had hoarded enough supplies -- food, milk, diapers -- to last for weeks of siege. Referring to the prime minister's famous farm, she warned, "Sharon will find that his people are not his sheep."

After Matar had finished speaking -- likening Arab terrorists to Nazis, calling Islam "the real threat in the world" -- the students followed Shlomo Wallins, a 45-year-old settler originally from Long Island, through deserted hallways, across a central courtyard patrolled by unsmiling, armed settlers, and downstairs, where the electricity flickered on and off. Wallins's cramped quarters smelled of sweat, sea air, humidity and zeal. He whipped out a guitar, streaming the anti-withdrawal movement's trademark bright orange banner, and led a round of "David King of Israel," a tune every Jewish schoolchild knows.

It would be a mistake to take the radicals' fervor as proof that they would attack Israeli forces trying to evacuate the settlements; the day after Matar's tirade, the Maoz Hayam compound was swiftly emptied by Israeli police, and even the most extreme of the settlers put up little actual fight. But it would also be a mistake to assume that the settlers are all hot air. Some settlers' emotions may boil over; some troops' nerves could snap. More worrisome than the grandstanders is the prospect that a handful of fanatics may turn to terrorism. Last Monday, police evacuated a central Jerusalem bus station over what turned out to be a dummy bomb with a note that read: "The disengagement will explode in our faces."

The brief battle of Maoz Hayam hints at the struggles -- over land, loyalty and legitimacy -- that will rattle Israel over the coming weeks. As I found on a visit to Gaza two weeks ago, the settler movement is radiating baffled hurt that Sharon, its former patron, has turned against it. But Sharon, who drifted right only after rising from the secular institutions of Israel's left-leaning founding elite, has never been rooted in the settlers' milieu. He has been for them, not of them. His characteristically stubborn determination to withdraw has three facets: his ex-general's view that Israeli security demands a retreat from the chaotic and densely populated strip, his strategist's view that Gaza cramps his freedom for maneuver over the West Bank, and his prime minister's view that his mandate gives him the right to make wrenching decisions.

By contrast, the settlers' manifest-destiny claims rely on an article of faith: that Gaza was given to the Jewish people by God. The result is a clash over limits -- how far Sharon can go to bring the settlers to heel versus how far the settlers will go to fight a democratically elected government on a course that they see as profoundly un-Jewish.

Neither side is used to losing; but for now, few Israeli analysts would bet on the settlers. That's because the pullout reflects a nascent post-Oslo consensus: that Israel has no Palestinian peace partner and that its society can handle only so much occupation. For the first two decades after Israel won the West Bank and Gaza during the Six Day War of 1967, a relatively quiescent Palestinian population made Israeli rule largely cost-free. Two intifadas , the worst spree of terrorism in Israel's history and a dead-end peace process have changed all that.

In 1937, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological father of today's Likud, told a British commission that pitting the Arab claim for another state against the Jewish demand for one was an Oliver Twist-like contest between "the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation." If anyone is starving today in Gaza, metaphorically or otherwise, it isn't the settlers. And after going along with settler appetites for Gaza for decades, Israeli society is now suffering a bad case of indigestion. The resultant internal rift -- between Israelis flying orange pro-settler ribbons and those flying blue pro-withdrawal ones -- makes the split between red and blue America seem shallow.

Sharon's political position wasn't made any easier when Hamas began firing mortar shells into Gaza settlements at the end of last week. Israel responded with targeted killings of militants on Friday and arrests yesterday. Sharon will continue to insist that Israel is not withdrawing under fire; Hamas and Islamic Jihad will try to show that it is.

And all the tussling over Gaza may be mere shadowboxing for the main event: the prospect of further withdrawals from the West Bank, the core of the settlers' dreams and the Palestinians' aspirations. The fact that Sharon hasn't clearly spelled out his post-Gaza intentions only heightens anxieties. "This is just the beginning, and I don't care what Sharon says," Michael B. Oren, the author of "Six Days of War" and a self-described pro-disengagement conservative, told me. Even mainstream settler leaders may be quietly hoping that the withdrawal will be so exhausting, ugly and divisive as to render future pullouts unthinkable. With such forces swirling around the strip, spending time in Gaza these days is, in a word, unsettling.

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