|Page 2 of 2 <|
Unsettled in Gaza
Settler leaders have protested that some Knesset members had not so much as visited Gaza before backing Sharon's withdrawal plan. In fact, visiting Gaza, I found, might only reinforce opinions. Those in favor of disengagement would note the grinding poverty and the indignities visited upon Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians to indulge the 8,500 Israeli settlers. Those against the evacuation would point to the acres of greenhouses and the serene suburban ambience of many of the 21 Gaza settlements.
But there's no escaping the reality of occupation here and the sprawling Israel Defense Forces (IDF) presence. Gray-green choppers thud overhead; on the ground, IDF pillboxes loom near ramshackle Palestinian homes, and barbed wire fences keep Palestinians away from the Kissufim corridor that leads from Israel proper to Gush Katif, the largest settlement bloc in Gaza. The road into Gush Katif (numbered, ironically, 242, the same as the U.N. Security Council resolution urging a land-for-peace deal) has been the site of numerous Palestinian attacks on settlers; it sweeps past a scowling, squat Israeli army tank and vaults above the route that bisects Palestinian Gaza, with both roadways hemmed in by gray bunkers to block fire from below.
The settlements themselves are designed to convey an impression of permanence; with their white houses, red roofs and now-ubiquitous orange banners bright against the Gaza dunes, these "facts on the ground" -- in the settler movement's famous phrase -- feel about as spontaneous as Al Gore. But few Gaza settlers are sure that their homes will be standing come September. At Maoz Hayam, the mood was one of electric anger in the face of disaster, not confidence in the face of adversity. ("I wouldn't consider it intelligent to get in the way of the bulldozer named Ariel Sharon," Gershom Gorenberg, author of a forthcoming history of the settlement movement, told me.) The radicals' sense of persecution was palpable. A settler walked by wearing an orange Star of David on his shirt, evoking the Nazi ghettoes. And on one hotel wall, a massive Hebrew banner read, "Nebuchadnezzar. Titus. Sharon."
The comparison of Israel's Likud prime minister to the destroyers of the ancient First and Second Temples gives some sense of the settlers' fury. Just down the road from Maoz Hayam, some radicals had taken their rage beyond mere rhetoric. On June 29, they had moved into a three-story beachfront house, painted slogans such as "Muhammad is a pig" nearby and flown several flags from the roof: Israeli, settler orange and the yellow banner of the anti-Arab Kach movement, which the State Department has branded a terrorist organization. A group of nearby Palestinians had bristled, and stones had flown in both directions. Some settlers had badly wounded a Palestinian teenager, who had slumped at the feet of Israeli medics, bleeding from his forehead, as shouting Israeli extremists hurled more rocks at him from close range. Israeli newspapers called the assault an attempted lynching.
When I visited later that day, the squatters were taunting IDF soldiers and hurling stones at their Palestinian neighbors, who were shielded by a row of Israeli riot police. One brazen settler, looking at the cluster of Israeli troops and cops below, winged rocks at the Arab house next door while shouting, "They're throwing stones!" Other settlers held up body-length mirrors to reflect the blazing sun into the eyes of Palestinians, soldiers, police and journalists -- an appalling rush of light and heat that rendered the victims, however briefly, eyeless in Gaza.
A few miles away, I got a taste for the lives of some of Gaza's less extreme settlers in the tranquil lanes of Gan Or, whose residents, with government-subsidized mortgages to pay and families to feed, are worried about their immediate future. "Two years before the evacuation of Yamit, it was decided where they'd go," said Shimon Snir, a 47-year-old father of seven whose home I visited. "Here, it's six weeks to go and we don't know."
Like many longtime residents of Gush Katif, Snir was unenthusiastic about the radicals in Maoz Hayam, many of whom had come to Gaza from West Bank settlements. When the Palm Beach Hotel's occupants had held a wine-and-cheese reception for Gush Katif residents, the old-timers stayed away, according to some local soldiers. "Most people in Gush Katif are pragmatic," Snir said. "There are no extremists here." Snir wore a T-shirt that read "American Dream" and spoke wistfully of the area back in 1987 when he moved here from Los Angeles. "It was a dream," he sighed. "Just houses and sand. No Arabs, no fence; it was all clean."
But since the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 and the second in 2000, keeping Israeli civilians in Gaza has required a massive military presence. Down the road from the beachfront melee, three young Israeli soldiers sat sweltering in a makeshift shelter, sipping red bug juice and scarfing back Doritos as they looked out over the Mediterranean. "They're crazy," a 19-year-old corporal who would give his name only as Nir said of the Maoz Hayam settlers. "You don't know what they're going to do next." He sweated inside a green flak jacket, which he conceded with a shrug might have to protect him from either Arabs or Jews. On the tinny radio, Britney Spears warbled, "You know that you're toxic."
The soldiers were more sympathetic to the established settlers than they were to the fiery newcomers; one of Nir's comrades even kept an orange bracelet reading "Jews don't expel Jews" tucked in his pocket in quiet defiance of army regulations. Even so, the troops -- unlike another 19-year-old corporal in Nir's unit who is now in jail for defying orders -- agreed that they would follow Sharon's orders. "I'm such a small piece of this," Nir sighed, squeezing his thumb and forefinger together.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Warren Bass is a senior editor of The Washington Post's Book World section and the author of "Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance" (Oxford University Press).