Boaz Yemini has two sons in the Israeli army and an 18-year-old daughter who is about to be drafted. He's a loving father but a hardheaded soul, and his heart doesn't bleed for Palestinians. And when it comes to the Gaza Strip, he says he wants only one thing: out.
"For me, Gaza is hell," said Yemini, a 48-year-old silversmith. "There is no other word for it."
After nearly four years of suicide bombings, military incursions and diplomatic stalemate, many Israelis say they are ready for something new, according to interviews with politicians, analysts and ordinary citizens. Public opinion polls tell the same story. A solid majority of the moderate middle -- the people who send their children to the army, worry about terrorism and security and see Palestinians as more a threat than a partner -- say they are ready, even aching, to pull out of Gaza.
The recent images televised here of Palestinian militants triumphantly displaying body parts of six Israeli soldiers killed when their armored personnel carrier exploded in Gaza City, and of civilians in the Rafah refugee camp searching for their meager belongings among the ruins of homes demolished by Israeli soldiers, have compounded the feeling that Gaza is a cursed land in which Israel has no business and no future. No one wants his or her child to be the last one to die there.
"The public reaction is very simple: Build a high fence and get the hell out of there," said strategic analyst Yosef Alpher, co-founder of Bitterlemons.org, a Palestinian-Israeli Internet dialogue site.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon captured the national mood three months ago when he declared, "I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza."
Sharon's declaration has turned Israel's volatile political scene on its head. Since then, the war hero and self-proclaimed patron of the Jewish settlement movement has faced emotional opposition from former allies who once worshiped him but now contend that his unilateral withdrawal plan is a threat to Israel's security and a betrayal of that movement. At the same time, he has won the grudging and skeptical support of Israeli peace activists, who recently took to the streets in Tel Aviv to show support for the plan of a leader they once reviled as a war criminal.
"The pendulum has swung," said Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli parliament and a longtime political opponent of the prime minister. "I believe Sharon has started something that even he can't control anymore."
The traditional division between hawks and doves remains strong and bitter. The peace camp has undergone a mini-revival, with Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and prominent politicians coming together to offer two similar proposals for a comprehensive peace settlement -- the Geneva agreement and the People's Voice initiative. The other side, buoyed by the defeat of Sharon's disengagement plan in a referendum of his Likud party this month, is maneuvering to deny him a majority in the cabinet for the proposal he is expected to present on Sunday.
Ever since the abortive negotiations at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and the subsequent Palestinian uprising, Israelis have complained there is no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.
That view has not changed in recent months. What has changed is the willingness of Israelis across much of the political spectrum to proceed unilaterally without a Palestinian partner. And to many of them, densely populated Gaza seems the logical place to begin, with its 1 million poverty-stricken Palestinians and its increasingly fundamentalist religious outlook.
"Israelis hate this piece of land," said Nahum Barnea, political columnist for Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel's most popular daily newspaper. "When Sharon said Israel has no purpose in Gaza, it was like the final verdict: You have a confession, you don't need more evidence."
The precedent for a Gaza withdrawal that proponents and critics cite most often is southern Lebanon. In May 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak abruptly and unilaterally pulled Israeli forces out of Israel's self-declared security zone there and ended 18 years of military occupation. Since then, despite occasional incidents, Israel's northern border has been relatively calm and Israeli casualties have dropped. But many critics -- Sharon chief among them -- contended that the withdrawal looked like a retreat to Israel's enemies and inspired Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to launch their uprising.
"The message we sent when we withdrew from Lebanon was that terror pays," said Yuri Shtern, a Knesset member and deputy minister strongly opposed to the move, "and withdrawing from Gaza could be much, much worse."
Analysts say Sharon is determined not to allow Palestinians to draw the same conclusions from a Gaza withdrawal, hence the aggressive military effort in recent weeks to assassinate leaders of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and to root out militants and eliminate weapons sources. Sharon, they say, is determined to leave Gaza on his terms, not those of the Palestinians.
Many Israelis say Sharon had hoped that while disengaging from Gaza, he could tighten Israel's grip on most of the West Bank. "His initial purpose was to sacrifice the queen in Gaza to save the king in the West Bank," Burg, the former parliament speaker, said. "But he was carried away by his own weakness and by the strong public reaction."
One way to gauge the atmosphere during stressful times is to examine the attitudes toward Israel's citizen army. Right now, analysts say, the army is undergoing a period of intense external criticism and self-doubt. The recent Israeli offensive in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city and refugee camp, in which more than 50 Palestinians were killed, was widely judged to be of dubious success, with large numbers of soldiers and equipment deployed for a limited payoff and widespread international condemnation.
At the same time the Rafah operation was occurring, a new survey of Israeli teenagers by the Israel Democracy Institute reported that 43 percent were sympathetic to two positions: Soldiers should be allowed to refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza and should also be allowed to reject an order to evacuate Jewish settlers. The common thread in the positions was support for the right of conscripts to make moral judgments based on conscience.
"What's revealing here is that the army as the embodiment of Jewish force is undergoing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy," said political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, who cites what he says is constant tension between senior commanders and the government over the size and nature of military operations, plus even louder criticism from the Israeli media.
The fundamental covenant between Israelis and the state allows the government to dispatch their youngsters to war only when vital security interests are at stake. Most Israelis no longer believe this is the case in Gaza, said military historian Michael Oren, who has a son in an army combat unit. "For a lot of Israelis, Gaza has become the final straw," he said.
Another place to measure the shift is the political middle, most clearly embodied these days by Shinui, a moderate, secular party poised between hawks and doves that surprised most analysts by finishing a strong third in last year's elections. It is the second-biggest party in Sharon's government and is pressing him to follow through with disengagement.
Shinui's leader, former TV talk show host Yosef Lapid, stunned some of his own supporters a week ago by comparing the image of an elderly Palestinian woman in Rafah -- sifting through the rubble of a house for her medication -- to the suffering of his own grandmother during the Holocaust. Most Shinui members support the disengagement plan but for much less emotional reasons.
"My approach to this is strictly rational," said Reshef Chayne, chairman of Shinui's parliamentary faction, who places himself squarely in the middle of the centrist party. "Of course you'd have to be inhuman not to feel compassion for the individual Palestinian child or woman or elderly person, but basically I believe that the Palestinians are to blame for what they get.
"So what I'm looking at is what's good for Israel -- and what's good for Israel is to get out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip."