"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.
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.
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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).