It has been a rough couple of months for Merav Cohen, a Jewish settler and mother of three who has broken ranks with her neighbors to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to close the settlements, withdraw the troops and get out of the Gaza Strip.
She has been threatened with eviction from her home, her 2-year-old son was denied entry to the settlement's pre-kindergarten, and she has been ostracized by her neighbors -- all for supporting the disengagement plan, Cohen said. Meanwhile, explosions and gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas keep the family awake at night. Her 6-year-old daughter, Rose, was so afraid that she moved in with her grandmother in Israel, 60 miles away.
"I want to disengage," Cohen, 30, said as an exchange of gunfire just a few hundred yards away echoed around her kitchen and underscored her fears. "I live in a democratic country, and I expressed my feelings in a free way, and they're preventing my kid from going to school. It's unheard of."
But in the view of many Jewish settlers here, Cohen and a few others who have publicly supported giving up Gaza are committing heresy. Gaza is part of the land of Israel, the Jewish national home, these residents believe, and relinquishing any part of that land -- even this tiny sliver, where more than 8,000 settlers are surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians -- is a betrayal of the Zionist dream.
The prospect of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza -- which Israel's parliament, the Knesset, is to vote on early next week -- has unleashed a raucous, passionate and possibly dangerous debate that is being framed by both sides in nearly apocalyptic terms.
Avraham Shapira, a former chief rabbi of Israel, called last week for Israeli soldiers to disobey any order to expel settlers from Gaza, saying it was "forbidden" by Jewish law and comparing it to eating pork or desecrating the Sabbath. Dozens more rabbis have signed letters, petitions and advertisements declaring that soldiers can refuse evacuation orders as a matter of conscience.
In an article titled "Refusing a Mad and Evil Order," Rabbi Shlomo Aviner -- dean of a Jerusalem religious school run by Ateret Cohanim, a group involved in moving Jews into Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem -- described Sharon's disengagement plan as a "horrible national crime and crime against humanity."
Settlers have branded Sharon, the architect of Israel's settlement expansion, a traitor. Politicians and top security officials openly express concern that he could be assassinated, and he appeared in parliament Wednesday surrounded by bodyguards.
Political analysts and commentators have warned of the collapse of the government, a split in Sharon's Likud Party, even a potential civil war. Sharon has warned of the "dissolution of the state." The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said in a speech Tuesday that soldiers refusing orders would pose "a danger to Zionism" and implored the rabbis, "Don't put us into impossible situations."
Some of the cruelest blows are being struck here in southern Gaza's Gush Katif bloc, a collection of 16 settlements with about 5,900 residents on a narrow piece of land on the Mediterranean coast along the border with Egypt. Under Sharon's disengagement plan, the settlements would be evacuated between June and September 2005, with displaced families being given financial compensation packages ranging from about $100,000 to $500,000.
About six families, most of whom moved here for economic reasons rather than religious ones, have declared their support for Sharon's plan, citing the dangerous living conditions, grim economic climate and their belief that Gaza is not part of the land of Israel that the Bible says God promised to Abraham. The country, they say, is better off giving it up.
Meir Rotenstein, 42, an electrician and father of five who has lived in Gush Katif for most of the past 21 years, said that since he went public with his feelings, his business has been boycotted and his children have been harassed and mugged at school. He was denounced by name in a widely circulated flier, and his 12-year-old son, Daniel, now refuses to attend classes.
"What the older generation is doing is inciting the youth to behave aggressively and violently," Rotenstein said. "Since I was born, I've been religious. I'm not ultra-Orthodox, but I wear a yarmulke on my head. But after all of this, I can say I am ashamed to be a religious person living in this community."
The dissent here became public Aug. 19 when the owner of a local pizza parlor, Avishai Nativ, hosted a meeting at his house that involved five settler families and a women's group called Shuvi (the Hebrew word for "come back") that is dedicated to immediate withdrawal from Gaza. Nativ said in an interview that he made his own psychological break with Gaza 10 years ago when the Oslo peace accords made it clear that it would eventually be turned over to the Palestinians.
"The government should have evacuated the settlements then, and we could have saved a lot of money and spilled blood," he said.
After the meeting at his house, there was a clash at the settlement gate between the visitors and anti-disengagement settlers that was filmed by a local television crew. The next day, according to people who attended the meeting, local officials and settlers began a campaign to persecute them, which they said has kept many withdrawal supporters silent. Nativ said his pizza business was down 85 percent.
"I'm a single mom with one child, and I've had many threats not to talk," said a settler in Rafiah Yam who favors Sharon's initiative and declined to be identified for safety reasons. "Many people would like to leave, but they're afraid that if they open their mouths, the establishment" will retaliate.
But the zeal for staying is strong among people who have toiled for decades to create homes and businesses here, who stay despite the daily threat of attack, and who believe that withdrawing unilaterally would reward Palestinian violence.
"I've been here two months, and I've already seen the rockets, and I can't sleep at night, and I wake up from the shooting," said Ligal Aharoni, 19, who works in a health clinic in Neve Dekalim to fulfill her national service requirements. "But if we're not here, the Qassams will hit Ashkelon, and then we'll just have to come back again," she said, reflecting a widely held view here that the Gaza settlements are Israel's first line of defense and that without them, Palestinians would fire homemade Qassam rockets at towns and cities inside Israel.
"Whoever wants to can leave here in peace -- no one is being kept here against their will," said Sheera Yovel, 63, who has lived in Gush Katif for 20 years, stretching across three generations of her family. "But you don't uproot people from their homes -- that's only done in Russia by the czar."
Researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.