Solidarity, Curiosity Sends Thousands of Israelis to Settlements

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Homesh, West Bank ( - Thousands of Israelis, taking advantage of a warm, holiday week, flocked to the West Bank settlement of Homesh on Thursday, one day after an even larger gathering in the Gaza Strip's Gush Katif settlement bloc.

The YESHA settlers' council organized the gatherings to protest Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. Under the plan, the government will remove some 9,500 Israelis from all 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank, starting this summer.

The plan has sparked emotional debate in Israel, with some citizens expressing shock that their own government would remove them from land that the Bible describes as their "eternal inheritance."

Sharon says he's ordered the evacuation for security reasons, and polls indicate his disengagement plan has majority support - although not in the affected settlements.

"We will be here forever!" proclaimed a banner stretched across the stage at the Homesh rally, held on a plateau on the edge of the hilltop community.

Knesset member Arye Eldad told the crowd that if striking workers can close down the country, so can the disengagement protestors. (Israel's Histadrut labor union, is famous for closing ports, utility services, post offices, banks, schools and municipalities in various labor disputes.)

On Wednesday, at the Gush Katif rally, Eldad angered many of his fellow politicians by calling for a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience against Sharon's disengagement plan.

Settler leaders are hoping that tens of thousands of Israelis will move into the settlements as the disengagement date approaches. The see strength in numbers: the more people who come to the settlements, the harder it will be to evacuate them.

At least 15,000 people visited Homesh on Thursday. Many of them said they also visited Hebron on Tuesday (Hebron is not part of the disengagement plan but it is a West Bank hotspot) and the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

With the road to Homesh closed to private cars, most Israelis arrived by buses chartered for the occasion; some drove to a nearby settlement and hopped on shuttle buses.

Resistance gathers steam

Yitzhik, from the Israeli city of Petah Tikvah, was visiting in Homesh with his wife and four children. He said he believes many people were there to see the situation for themselves, and he said he thinks some will return if the government proceeds with its evacuation plan this summer.

"I think that many people are waiting for the trigger [to be pulled]. Many people are like a spring that is pressed and waiting to move. Many people understand that it's not just the withdrawal of several [Jewish communities], it's about the whole of Israel," he added.

It's not about moving people out of their land, said Yitzhik's 16-year-old son Tomer. People are moved out of their homes when a new road needs to be built. He said it's about giving the land that belongs to the Jewish people to the Arabs.

"It's painful," said Rafi, a caterer from the Israeli city of Netanya, who said he has catered events in places where most Israelis fear to go. One of his friends from Homesh, whose wedding he catered, was killed in a terror attack, he said.

On Tuesday, he said he had visited the nearby settlement of Sanur, which is included in the disengagement plan, then drove nearly 200 miles to Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip.

"I think it will probably come to violence, because of the youth, not because of the adults," said Rafi, who was accompanied by his pregnant wife and seven children.

Still he said he's not convinced that the disengagement will take place. "Sharon is afraid," he said, and has already talked about postponing the disengagement for three weeks until after the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av in mid-August.

"We came to strengthen the community," said Israel Ben-David, 18, who was sitting with three friends under an olive tree on the sidelines of the event. "I think there will be a miracle [and the disengagement won't take place]," said Ben-David. But if it does, "there will be a civil war."

If need be, he said, he would return to help settlers resist the evacuation and if the police started hitting him, he said he would hit back.

"To my sorrow, it is the police who will begin the violence," said Tamar, 60, one of the early West Bank settlers. She moved to Efrat more than 20 years ago.

Efrat is part of the large settlement bloc of Gush Etzion just outside of Jerusalem. Sharon said in media interviews last week that he came up with the disengagement plan with the intention that Israel would hold onto large settlement blocs in the West Bank (including Gush Etzion) in a final agreement with the Palestinians.

"If they evacuate here, Tel Aviv will also go," said Tamar, who indicated that the evacuation of Homesh would be the beginning of the end of Israel.

Mostly religious

Tamar suggested that secular Israelis didn't show up at the settlement rallies in large numbers because they are "afraid to identify with the image" of the settlers.

Her friend, Yardena, 62, said the settlers "are painted as the enemy of the country," and that's why secular people don't participate in the rallies. Also, secular Israelis are more concerned about "seeking their own quality of life," she said.

But Daniella, a secular Jew and one of the few Israeli women dressed in slacks, said she had come with a group of friends from Tel Aviv to see the place.

"Curiosity. I came to know, to see, to give me something to think about," said Daniella. "It's a beautiful, charming, wonderful place."

Daniella, like many others at the event, said she had visited the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip earlier in the week. She described herself as "realistic".

"My opinion [about the disengagement] won't change anything. I understand the people that live here," she said, empathizing with their pain at the prospect of being moved out.

"I think it [the disengagement] will happen in the end," she said. "But maybe they [the settlers] will succeed in staying. There are always miracles."

'Bush, leave us alone!'

Many people attending this week's rallies wore orange-colored clothing, orange being the "anti-disengagement" color.

At Homesh, the crowds seemed to enjoy the day, snacking on Popsicles or picnicking under trees.There were activities for children and for older people, a short, steep hike up a mountain offered a commanding view of the entire region. At the highest point, a guide explained the view.

Although the surrounding hills are dotted with Arab villages, the guide pointed to one direction after another, naming biblical places -- Mount Tabor, Elon Moreh, the mountains of Nazareth -- the Biblical Judea and Samaria, all of which religious Jews believe the Bible promised to them as an eternal inheritance.

Smadar came with her 16-year-old daughter and her father from Rosh HaAyin -- not far away, but within Israel proper. She said she had never visited Homesh, a settlement that was established in 1978.

"I came to identify with them," Smadar said. "I don't want to think about [the possibility of disengagement]."

"It hurts me that they want to throw them out of their houses. If they decided tomorrow my house belongs to them [the Arabs] they'll want to throw me out?" she asked. "It's our land... It's courageous where they [the settlers] live. It's scary [here]. They are guarding the State of Israel with their bodies." She said the government cannot give up the land.

"It's forbidden to say 'return the Land.' It was never theirs," said Michal from Haifa. The places from which the Arabs fled during Israel's war of Independence in 1948 are within the State of Israel, she said. Israel didn't take this land from anyone to build the settlements, she added. "It's promised to us in the book of Genesis."

"I came to demonstrate my belief that this is our country," said Yonit from Haifa. "You tell President Bush not to interfere in our country. The Arabs have 22 countries of their own and [they don't need] to develop another country here," she said.

Many Israelis believe that it was pressure from the U.S. that forced Sharon to come up with the disengagement plan -- a charge that Israeli leaders vehemently deny.

"There is no room to split this country in two. I don't understand how a smart president doesn't understand they [the Arabs] just want to destroy us," Yonit said.

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