Showdown in Gaza

Right-wing protesters screamed and threw stones, but the machinery of disengagement is grinding on. A report from the front lines of Israel's historic withdrawal.

By Rebecca Sinderbrand
August 17, 2005 11:37PM (UTC)
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On Tuesday, day two of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the long-predicted clash of Jew vs. Jew finally arrived. As more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers flooded the largest Gaza settlement, Neve Dekalim, settlers and their supporters hurled stones and eggs and verbal abuse at their adversaries, most of them Israelis of the same age. At least 48 demonstrators were arrested, while others took refuge in the synagogue. Despite the hostile encounters, senior Israeli Defense Force officers said they hoped to complete the evacuation of the settlement, the center of opposition to Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan here, within 24 hours. But the real test is to come Wednesday, after the deadline for voluntary evacuation has expired.

On Monday, Tisha B'Av, the holiday that commemorates the tragedies of Jewish history, thousands of soldiers and policemen drawn from units across Israel finally received the detailed disengagement instructions their commanders had distributed. Massed in makeshift camps near Gaza, they pored over the pocket-size handbook covering every element of the operation, from how to respond to settler threats to how to calm a hysterical child. "It's good to see things in writing like this," said Dubi, an Air Force officer, wiping a layer of dust off the bright-green cover. "It makes everything feel a little less chaotic."


In Gaza, the remaining residents of the Gush Katif settlement bloc were getting some last-minute instructions of their own. Over the weekend, the Yesha Council of settler leaders announced their final desperate effort to thwart disengagement by blocking convoys carrying soldiers and policemen into Gush Katif, and told protesters to head for southern towns like Sederot and Ofakim. On Monday, new leaflets signed by several prominent West Bank rabbis advised those still inside Gaza, especially those there illegally, to "hamper and prevent the movement of the security forces on the roads," though it urged them to resist without violence.

But the latest settler blockade wasn't enough to halt the disengagement countdown. As Tisha B'Av ended, and with it more than three decades of government-sanctioned Israeli residence in this coastal strip captured by Israel after the 1967 war, authorities responded to the Yesha blockade threat by setting up roadblocks on all Israel's southbound highways in the western Negev, starting at the Ashkelon junction. Later that evening, the last civilian car passed into Gaza through the Kissufim crossing. At midnight, every Israeli left in Gush Katif was officially breaking the law. Soon after, the first buses and ambulances carrying thousands of bleary-eyed troops rolled into Gaza.

Most of the northern settlements are empty now. Many of the rest are little more than ghost towns; soldiers have started marking abandoned homes with an "X" inside a circle. At least three of every five settlers have already left the coastal strip, or agreed to leave by Wednesday morning. It may be a matter of pocketbook over principle: The government has set aside more than $870 million to fund the Gaza evacuation, and those who leave before Wednesday will be fully compensated for their property. For those who remain, that offer drops by 30 percent. And thousands of residents have already made that choice, especially in the religious settlements of Gush Katif. Some say they are simply looking to make a statement by lingering as long as possible; others are vowing to actively resist their eviction.


As dawn arrived Monday and troops reached their destinations, settler frustration showed throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Shortly after the deadline hit, riots were reported in Neve Dekalim; as soldiers arrived to deliver the government's official 48-hour eviction notice, settlers inside blockaded the entrance with piles of dumpsters and wire and set tires afire. Troops haven't approached the five settlements expected to provide the fiercest resistance: the religious communities of Kfar Darom, Atzmona, Dugit, Netzarim and Katif, who negotiated their way out of a Monday meeting. The first time settler and soldier will come face-to-face in these communities is when actual eviction operations begin on Wednesday.

When they do meet, the soldiers' plan of action has been scripted in painstaking detail. First comes the knock on the door, and careful negotiation by a team leader. If they can't talk the occupants out, teams of four soldiers are assigned to enter the home and carry each settler to a bus waiting to take them back across the Green Line. The teams are divided by gender and size, from some male teams assigned the heaviest men to female teams handling women and small children. The soldiers have been trained to expect a sustained verbal assault, and a certain amount of physical abuse. The settlers are dealing with emotional trauma, said IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, and during the beginning of this week, "we [the IDF] are there to take it, and not to dish it out."

Technically, once a house is cleared, it becomes government property, with just a few politically considered restrictions on use. But no matter what, most soldiers insist they won't be able to stay in the home of someone they've just evicted. "If I have to, I'll make myself comfortable on one of their nice green lawns right outside. I couldn't stay under the roof of someone I kicked out, I'd have nightmares," said a young Air Force captain.


The fiercest resistance so far isn't necessarily coming from Gaza settlers themselves, but from anti-disengagement infiltrators who've slipped across the border illegally all summer; by the deadline, their numbers had climbed to as high as 5,000, and border police have arrested hundreds more still trying to make it across, including some posing as television crews, and others stowing away in moving vans arriving to carry residents in the other direction. (From Monday night through Tuesday alone, authorities arrested more than 800 right-wing protesters.) It's a mixed group that includes yeshiva students, young families from other, still-legal settlements, and some sympathetic Americans (like former New York Rep. Dov Hikind and Helen Freedman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel, both of whom arrived this week). It's the teenagers dubbed the "hilltop youth" who worry authorities the most: groups of male religious students and others who've set up camp in tents or empty buildings and pledged to remain for a final showdown with the IDF.

For all of them, it's zero hour. Some are taking their stand on religious principle, claiming that all of the biblical land of Eretz Israel belongs to the Jews. Others subscribe to a fatalistic domino theory, citing Sharon's refusal to rule out further territorial concessions in the West Bank: today Netzarim, tomorrow Netanya. In his speech to the nation Monday night, Sharon mourned the death of the settler dream, saying he had hoped Israel would be able to hold on to Netzarim and Kfar Darom "forever. But that is impossible." He added that the withdrawal offered Israel a new chance for peace, and threatened the Palestinians with a "harsher than ever" response to any future terror atacks. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a man more associated with the olive branch, spent the day stressing the security rewards of the operation. "You are saving Israel," he told troops guarding the now-closed Kissufim crossing. The government is gambling that disengagement will deliver peace and security. Right-wing opponents like Benjamin Netanyahu, who left Sharon's government in protest, insist that it will bring neither.


For Sharon and Israel, the beginning of the disengagement process marks the end of a remarkable journey. In a matter of months, the once unthinkable has become the undeniable. Israeli commentators have made a national pastime speculating on Sharon's motivations, with right-wing columnists pointing darkly to his legal troubles, now largely forgotten, while what's left of the Israeli left argues that Sharon clearly intends to trade Gaza for the real prize, continued Israeli control of the West Bank and Jerusalem. What is sure is that as with President Bush and Iraq, one man's vision has single-handedly altered the foreign policy of a nation. Nobody seems sure what comes next: not Sharon, not the Israeli public, and certainly not Palestinians, who spent the week alternating between overwhelming elation and borderline paranoia. In a historic first, P.A. security forces have coordinated with their Israeli counterparts to prevent extremists on either side from derailing disengagement, but it is uncertain how long the calm will last.

Looking down the road, many suspect the Gaza withdrawal, along with the planned evacuation of four isolated Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank, marks the beginning and the end of Israeli territorial concessions to a future Palestinian state. If so, that will put Sharon on a collision course with the Palestinians, one that the Gaza drama has only temporarily obscured. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his people's long-standing position when he described Gaza disengagement as the first step to the eventual hand-over of all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This position, which envisions Israel returning more or less to its pre-June 1967 borders, has been the consensus one held by the international community and, until recently, the U.S. But Sharon has stated that he has no intention of withdrawing from the large settlement blocs in the West Bank or of allowing the division of Jerusalem. The only player that can break this logjam is the United States, Israel's indispensable ally. In a break with U.S. policy, in April 2004 President Bush gave his de facto blessing to the large settlement blocs, although his aides have since backtracked slightly. No one knows what the U.S. will do when crunch time in the West Bank comes.

While these issues waited on the horizon, Israel this week had the air of a nation tired of dwelling on disengagement. After a slight dip earlier this summer, polls show support for disengagement has been rising steadily. Organizers hoped to bring 20,000 to an anti-pullout protest Monday; instead, just a few hundred showed up. On an army bus near Gaza, troops rode in silence and listened to the radio as an emotional caller told one host "we are through using troops as human shields" to keep 9,000 Gaza settlers from coming into contact with the 1.3 million Palestinians that surround them.


All summer, activists have alternated between berating troops for their involvement and trying to guilt-trip them into defying orders. At an anti-withdrawal protest several weeks ago near the border town of Ofakim, sweet-faced children offered gifts of candy to troops acting as a living barrier between rally attendees and Gush Katif. "We love you, soldiers! We love you, policemen!" they chanted over and over, as their parents urged the officers to disobey their commanders. "God will hold you responsible for what you do here," said one woman sternly, as she balanced a big-eyed child on her hip. "This is an evil order. You do not have to follow it."

But despite harsh settler rhetoric, and the IDF's fears, it's possible even the most hardcore withdrawal opponents may not have the appetite for a death match over Gaza. So far, despite threats and the occasional confrontation, the army hasn't had to activate "zero ring," the Special Forces units who've been trained to intervene if eviction efforts turn violent. (The other six "rings" of security are already in place: soldiers and policemen responsible for sealing the border, holding the roads, standing guard in case of Hamas attacks.) Instead, stories of emotional reunions between settlers and units that have already arrived are filtering back to troops tensely awaiting their first ride into Gush Katif: between soldiers and commanding officers, nephews and uncles, high school classmates. "It is OK to cry with them," the IDF chief of staff told brigade commanders.

For the soldiers of Ofek, the unit I've been embedded with for the past month, the waiting has turned hellish. For the first few weeks of training, most of the grumbling was directed at the living conditions in Re'im Bet, a few threadbare canvas tents perched on a barren patch of ground near Gaza. The Negev sun was overpowering in cloudless skies. When the air did move, it swept along clouds of dust that coated every available surface, and invariably made it through several layers of Saran Wrap into my computer keyboard. Every time I took off my shoes, I poured out a small pile of dirt; I could feel sand gritting between my teeth when I spoke. On some exercises, troops slept out in the field under open skies, faces and arms covered against flea bites, and avoided midnight bathroom runs because of snake scares.


But as Aug. 15 drew closer, the psychological burden of "Operation Helping Hand to Our Brothers" became the greatest source of angst. "Standing before you is a difficult mission," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told soldiers during his address to the nation Monday night. "Not an enemy, but brothers and sisters." It's a tough task for troops trained to fight. Many weren't yet born during the rancorous evacuation of Yamit settlement in Sinai in 1982, and express discomfort with an assignment that involves ceding ground, not defending it.

On deadline day, as a few units headed into Gaza to hand out eviction notices, many troops wandered the camp in aimless packs, or sat in small groups cleaning and recleaning the guns they won't be allowed to use on this mission. Cellphone messages from other units sent rumors sweeping the base. To break the tension, one skinny soldier abruptly broke into a loud, ironic chorus of "David, Melech Israel" (David, King of Israel), a settler favorite. Some of his friends yelled back anti-disengagement slogans by way of a sarcastic comeback; other troops napping on the slightly shaded ground next to a nearby tent didn't even crack an eyelid. "It would be nice to know for sure where they're sending us. There's always the chance you'll run into someone you know," said a Navy lieutenant assigned to the operation. He stood on the edge of camp, squinting into the sun, and watched more military traffic drift toward Gaza. "But I'm just ready to finally start already. Whether you agree with this or not, I think everybody just wants it over as fast as possible."

Rebecca Sinderbrand

Rebecca Sinderbrand is a writer based in New York.

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