Prayers had failed. Plan B called for a curse.
So a week ago, 20 men gathered in darkness around a grave in northern Israel to carry out the cabalist ritual pulsa denura, which in Aramaic means "lash of fire." The object of the curse was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who refuses to cancel his plan to evacuate 25 Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory.
According to participants, Sharon will be struck down by the Angels of Destruction in less than a month, or else the 20 men themselves will die.
The ritual might have drawn little attention at a quieter moment in a country that has long been a showcase for extreme beliefs. But as the evacuations approach, Israeli society is transfixed by every detail of what Sharon calls disengagement, and images of the chanting men have been played repeatedly on Israeli television.
Sober assessments also appeared in Israeli newspapers Wednesday noting that a pulsa denura was invoked nearly a decade ago against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not long before he was killed by a Jewish extremist opposed to his support of the 1993 Oslo accords.
The Justice Ministry is investigating the new curse, although the participants are hardly hiding. "We believe in God," Michael Ben-Horin, a settler in the Golan Heights who helped organize the rite, said in a telephone interview. "I put myself in judgment before God. Either Sharon will die or I will."
Many Israelis have been avidly following the anti-disengagement marches, sit-ins and low-grade sabotage for months, but the protests are growing more extreme as the evacuation approaches.
A new generation of political activists has established its credentials this summer. Scores of teenagers will begin school this fall with criminal records after taking part in some of the sabotage that has been a hallmark of the anti-disengagement movement.
Members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, have been fitted for body armor on orders from Israeli security agencies, fearful of assassination attempts by Jewish extremists. Meanwhile, settlers in the Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai announced Thursday that they would dress for the evacuation in clothes modeled on uniforms worn by Jewish prisoners at Nazi death camps.
Orange, the color of the T-shirts, rubber bracelets and car-antenna ribbons of the anti-disengagement movement, is in or out depending on one's political perspective. Israel's retailers, meanwhile, moved up their end-of-summer sales by weeks. Store owners were afraid a massive call-up of army reservists in August and possible unrest would cut revenue.
"It's like a panic," said Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, a professor of Jewish history at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva.
Raz-Krakotzkin favors further settlement evacuations after the ones scheduled to begin Aug. 15, but he believes the cabalist ritual and other extreme forms of resistance will ultimately benefit Sharon, even though he is the target. The harder this evacuation appears to Israelis and the rest of the world, his argument goes, the less pressure Sharon will feel to press forward with withdrawals from additional settlements.
"You have this common hysteria on the left and right," Raz-Krakotzkin said. "You have to ask yourself who all of this serves."
This week began with a telephone text message that swept quickly through a society where many men have two or three cell phones hanging from their belts. It said that Sharon, a heavy-set septuagenarian, had suffered a heart attack and was on his way to the hospital.
"I want to show you that I am capable of speaking," Sharon said after his weekly cabinet meeting. "I understand that this is causing a storm, and I want to either calm or disappoint everyone. As you see, my situation is fine. It is an unfounded rumor. But you must admit that it is interesting here."
The message was chalked up as a hoax perpetrated by anti-disengagement activists.
Their camp has also accused Sharon of deploying Israel's domestic security service, Shin Bet, against them. Two alleged Shin Bet agents were unmasked this week in Sanur, a small West Bank settlement scheduled for evacuation that religious extremists intend to make their Alamo.
At the same time, the government is concerned about the actions of some rabbis with the Israel Defense Forces who have implored troops to refuse orders to evacuate Jews from Gaza.
Lt. Amital Bareli, an army rabbi, traveled Sunday to the main crossing point into the Gaza settlements, where soldiers are under orders to prevent nonresidents from entering. Bareli appealed to them to ignore the orders, calling them "flagrantly illegal." Military officials are considering criminal charges against him.
The televised curse, condemned Wednesday by mainstream settler leaders, was shown again Wednesday on the evening news. Arrayed in a semi-circle around the grave of Shlomo Ben-Yosef, a member of a radical Jewish underground group who was hanged by the British in 1938 for firing on a bus full of Arabs, the men chanted for Sharon's swift death.
One of the men who took part in the ceremony was Rabbi Yosef Dayan, a settler from the West Bank who also participated in the pulsa denura against Rabin. The prime minister's assassination failed to undermine the Oslo accords. But Ben-Horin contends that Sharon's demise would stop disengagement in its tracks because his own party is against it.
Extreme times, Ben-Horin said, call for extreme measures.
"Imagine Bush was giving Texas to Mexico and expelling all the people there," Ben-Horin said. "How would they feel?"