Israel on the Brink

As the deadline looms for settlers to leave the settlement of Gush Katif, will Sharon’s Disengagement Plan divide the country against itself?

Group of people standings in a field at sundown
Photograph by Miki Kratsman

When the Jewish residents of Gush Katif in Southern Gaza first heard that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was planning to turn their villages over to the Palestinian Authority, they launched a media campaign with a slick video. The camera pans down palm-lined streets, past Miami-style villas and brightly painted playgrounds. But suddenly the vacation illusion ends, followed by images of bombed-out houses, mutilated children, and interviews with grieving parents. “Why, after three years of bravery under fire,” Rachel Saperstein asks in the video, “must I leave my home, and why must this house be given to the families of suicide bombers?” “The country took our son,” laments Sami Hilberg, “and now they are taking away his grave.”

For the longest time, the Israeli prime minister was their personal hero, a tough politician who championed the settlement movement—its patron saint and father figure. And many of the 8,300 settlers in the Gush can remember how the prime minister regularly appeared in their villages. “Sharon’s ranch is quite close, and he liked to spend Friday nights with us,” recalled Yitzhak Elya, assistant municipality chief of Gush Katif, when I visited him at his office. “I’d get a call from the gatekeeper. ‘The fat man is here,’ he would say, and then I’d go down to the kitchen and make sure a large platter of bourekas was ready. The first thing he’d do was polish off the complete platter and then he would turn to me, and say, ‘Itsik, you are screwing up. Don’t you get it that you need to be having lots more babies . . . . Your presence here will only be guaranteed if there are many more of you. Itsik, these settlements are Israel’s front line,’ he would repeat over and over again. But since he declared his plan, Sharon has not come anywhere near our village.’’

The Disengagement Plan calls for the complete evacuation by July 20 of Gush Katif, a block of twenty-one Jewish settlements in southern Gaza, as well as three villages in the north end of the Strip and four encampments on the West Bank. Settlers who refuse to go peacefully will be pulled from their homes, and as the deadline approaches, the military is expected to deploy 30,000 troops to join the battalion already stationed in the Gaza. Few expect the pullout to go smoothly; the slightest friction could ignite a chain reaction. Maybe it will begin with a single bullet fired on a soldier or a villager. Instead of a few thousand settlers, the army could be confronted by 100,000 protesters streaming into the region, and, quite possibly, soldiers will refuse orders to uproot their countrymen. Any of these scenarios is capable of tumbling Israel into a civil war. “The allure of executing a spectacular attack to prevent a withdrawal from Gaza remains strong among extremists,” writes Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Sharon has neither demonstrated his skills at juggling nitroglycerin balls, nor ever balked at the challenge.

To date, Sharon has not revealed a larger vision against which the strategy behind his withdrawal from the Gush can be evaluated. So, while a straight-faced prime minister could claim in an address to the Knesset that the Disengagement Plan “does not replace negotiations,” or “permanently freeze the situation,” his chief advisor, Dov Weinglass, offered the opposite argument, suggesting that this pullout will be the first and last concession Sharon intends to make, providing an excuse to go no further in talks with the Palestinians. “The significance of Sharon’s plan is the freezing of the peace process,” said Weinglass. “The Disengagement Plan actually supplies the formaldehyde into which all other [peace] plans can be put.”

Perhaps this is the reason why the lines separating the plan’s supporters from its detractors are as murky as they are. For example, many members of the Labour Party, presently part of Sharon’s coalition government, say they have no real clue what he is up to. A Labour Party member, Amram Mitzna, who was Sharon’s main opponent in the last election and who first proposed the unilateral Disengagement Plan, told me that the only reason he remains in the coalition is that he believes that “history is larger than Sharon and that once disengagement from Gaza is implemented, there will be no stopping a withdrawal from a far larger area of the occupied territories.”

Many Israelis take the opposite view, suspecting that by disengaging from Gaza, Sharon intends to consolidate Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. If so, you would expect to see many more West Bank settlers supporting Sharon’s plan as the lesser evil—rallying behind it to safeguard their own turf. Yet in the synagogues of Judea and Samaria, settlers refer to Sharon as the dictator—“the converted one, who in the process of forsaking his religion, tears up sacred books in public.” And two prominent settlement leaders, Rabbi Zalman Melamed and Rabbi Dov Lior, are now calling on all soldiers to disobey orders to remove the settlers.

The scheming, seething cauldron that is the settlement community these days is all too reminiscent of the conditions that prevailed in the weeks prior to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Although Sharon himself refuses to wear a flak jacket (“they don’t make one in my size”), there is no denying that his life is on the line. Many senior ministers have received death threats; security around the prime minister is extraordinarily thick, and pre-emptive arrests called “administrative detentions,” used to detain Palestinian suspects, are now being directed at troublemakers among the settlers.

Still, the majority of Israelis want their government to take whatever steps are necessary to make the withdrawal a reality. In early February, a poll published in Israel’s influential daily newspaper Haaretz claimed that despite fears that resistance to the disengagement could lead to civil war, a clear majority supported moving ahead even if the settlers deployed weapons against the soldiers. At the moment, only about 17 percent of the nation think the evacuation should be halted outright.

Israelis seem to have taken on the prime minister’s characteristic bravado. When yesha, the group representing settlers across Israel, called for a referendum on the issue, an editorial in Haaretz was telling in its opposition. “The settlement enterprise began in Hebron during Passover in 1968,” Haaretz editors wrote. “Had the citizens of Israel been asked, at any stage [whether they supported the enterprise], it is doubtful whether they would have agreed . . . . The settlers chose to operate far from the public eye and to rely on lobbying in the corridors of power. Referenda are not part of Israel’s political culture. . . . Just as the public was not asked in a referendum whether to privatize the banks, cut welfare allowances, or go to war, it should not be asked about the disengagement.”

Whether yesha’s request for a referendum is justified or not is beside the point. The cynical toute comprendre, the swagger, the bravado is the point. What it is saying is that a poker game is in progress. The major players, including the Israeli media, the public, and many parliamentarians, seem to have all agreed not to force Sharon to show his hand, to declare, for example, whether he considers the Gaza evacuation the beginning or the end of concessions. The game seems to be progressing on the assumption that in the end the settlers will be stared down, take the money they are being offered—on average $250,000 (US) per family—and leave without a fuss.

The underestimation of the settlers’ determination to remain can be put down to the fact that most Israelis do not understand the commitment of the settler population. Most have never travelled to the settlements, have never seen for themselves the levels of hostility and aggression building in these regions. But a traveller arriving in the West Bank town of Hebron gets this much right off the top.

At the gates of the Jewish section of Hebron, in the so-called “H2 district,” huge banners declaring “Israel Does Not Support The Transfer” stretch across storefronts that were once part of a bustling Arab Kasbah. The association of the term “transfer” with the forcible extraditions of Jews by the Gestapo is clearly intentional. “We Will Never Relent,” a second banner declares. And although the Gush is located about 100 kilometres from Hebron, a third screams, “Gush Katif Will Be Our Stalingrad.” Graffiti sprayed on walls shamelessly cry out: “Gas The Arabs.”

When the wind picks up, the banners flap relentlessly against concrete walls, creating the aural illusion of machine-gun fire, which is sometimes interrupted by the real thing. Along the winding cobblestone roads leading up to Hebron’s main yeshiva, settlers have erected monuments to their martyrs. Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who died in the act of massacring twenty-nine Arabs as they knelt in prayer during Ramadan, has earned a plaque, an enormous gravestone, and the status of a saint in Hebron. Rabbi Slonim, who along with a tiny community of sixty-nine Hebron Jews had his throat cut in the Arab uprisings of 1929, has been memorialized in myriad ways. Making your way up Hebron’s hill, you come across dozens of markers celebrating the life of Slonim and other martyrs. It is akin to the fourteen stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, which Christ climbed on the way to his crucifixion.

On the sidewalks of the H2 district, where some 450 Orthodox Jews have uprooted thousands of Palestinian families, I discover the residues of the Orange Star Campaign—badges worn by the settlers in a further attempt to associate the Disengagement Plan with the Nazi era. Mainstream Israel was appalled by the campaign, and charges of Holocaust exploitation finally forced yesha to abandon it, but the settlers soon began scouring the landscape for other dramatic ways to express their hostility.

The opportunity came in early January, following a government order to remove two illegal trailers that settlers had parked on the outskirts of Yitzhar in the Nablus region. Settlers soon flocked into the area, formed human chains, and poured barrels of oil on the road at points where it wound around its steepest cliff. Army trucks moving to the scene barely managed to avoid disaster, and later that afternoon the first bullet associated with the Disengagement Plan was fired when an Israeli soldier sent a warning shot above the head of an Israeli citizen. A precedent had been set.

If the Israeli public seems unconcerned about what is to come in Gaza, it is not for lack of alarmists and doomsayers. Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, who is perhaps the most moderate of the settlers’ leaders, falls into both camps. Nicknamed “the Bridge” for his efforts since Rabin’s assassination to mediate between the settlers and moderates and even the left wing, he accused his fellow clergy of treason, claiming plans to deploy Rabin’s assassin were hatched in fundamentalist circles. But no plans were ever found, and as a result Bin Nun became persona non grata in the Orthodox community and could no longer remain a member of his hometown settlement. Despite his excommunication, Bin Nun still worked to keep the camps from drawing inextricably apart. Then, in January, his persistence broke. In an interview in Haaretz, he argued that it was no longer possible to mediate; a collision was imminent.

In the same article, titled “Apocalypse Now,” Bin Nun condemned Sharon’s bulldozing strategies and his message that it is acceptable to uproot Jews. “Sharon is a man of force,” says Bin Nun. “He needs a national trauma to impress upon both the Israeli public and the international community that [moving settlers] will be impossible to do again.” But, as Bin Nun points out, generating traumas is not an exact calculus. Once implemented, the best-laid plans take on a life of their own. “I see everything going black. I see a civil war,” says Bin Nun. “And a civil war is the only thing that a prime minister of Israel has no right to bring about.”

Like Bin Nun, Arieh Eldad, a member of the Knesset, believes that Sharon is playing with fire. But while Bin Nun says he will do all he can to stave off a civil war, Eldad seems prepared to be its catalyst. Eldad is a plastic surgeon and a brigadier general who served for several years as the Israeli Defence Force’s Surgeon General. In his mid-fifties, bald, with a bright, clinical stare, he is considered by those on the left and the right as a kind of super-intellectual. He is one of seven sitting members of the far-right National Union Party, which recently advocated abolishing Arabic as Israel’s second official language.

In his book The Challenge of Jerusalem, Eldad refers to what he calls the “schizophrenia” at the heart of Judaism. At its core there are two irreconcilable concepts: one liberationist and redemptive, the other utopian and emancipatory. Behind the redemptive idea are those who believe they have a moral and historical right to the land. Those in the grip of the emancipatory concept hold that church and state must be kept apart and that Israel needs to normalize relations with its neighbours. On the extremes of the redemptive side are Jews who will not be satisfied until Israel is 100-percent Arabrein, a term some settlers borrow from the Nazis’ declared wish to make Germany Judenrein (free of Jews). On the extremes of the emancipatory side are those who would happily include the Palestinians in a bi-national state, even though far higher Arab birth rates would rule against Israel retaining its Jewish identity for long.

Most Israelis live, think, and work between these extremes. For better or worse they are committed to “managing the conflict,” both the external struggle with the Palestinians, and the one forever raging within their own souls. It struck me that this tug-of-war goes a long way toward explaining one of the great vexations an outsider often comes across in Israel. When Israelis are asked to consider a blatant civil-rights violation committed by their own army, they often lapse into a kind of mental ping-pong that bespeaks the schizophrenia Eldad has written about. Needless to say, the result is ambivalent judgment, which is effectively no judgment at all. Clear, distinct arguments are, in the main, limited to those Israelis willing to consider positions at the extremes.

The state of equilibrium in Israel is a fragile thing, Eldad claims. It will not, in fact cannot, endure an undertaking as single-minded as Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan without splintering into numerous camps. “Sharon has no right to do this,” Eldad says, echoing Bin Nun. “It will backfire, and we will all live to regret it. Sharon is an old man. He is weary, but he is also vain enough to believe his weariness is tantamount to the nation’s weariness—that the nation is too tired to keep on struggling.”

In late January, Eldad was invited to speak at the eleventh annual Temple Feast, a convention of ultra-Orthodox Jews whose mandate is to build the Third Temple in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, a site occupied by Islam’s third-holiest shrine, the El Aqsa complex. Third Temple activists hold firmly to the belief that the Messiah’s return has been delayed pending reconstruction of the Temple originally built in 950 bc. Until then, they argue, Jewish history is fated to remain incoherent and incomplete.

As he made his way through the crammed corridors of the Jerusalem International Convention Centre, through gaggles of the frocked and fur-hatted, Eldad stopped to observe Rabbi Yehuda Kroizer whipping up a carefully measured concoction of loaves and crackers, a reconstruction fully in accord with the midday sacrifice as it had been prepared by the high priests in the days prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ad.

In one of the conference rooms, Moshe Feiglin, head of the Jewish Leadership Division of Sharon’s Likud Party, was telling an audience that the Temple movements are growing more intense. In Feiglin’s analysis, Ben Gurion’s Labour Party, which governed for the first twenty-nine years of Israel’s existence, is to blame for the moral marshlands into which the state has dissolved. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he said, “Moshe Dayan, a ‘rootless Jew,’ refused to raise the Israeli flag over the Temple Mount . . . [and] feared that believers would one day come to the temple to pray, build a synagogue, and someday a temple. The next Moshe Dayan will be one of us. And he will have a different dream.”

Eldad had accepted the invitation to speak, not because he wished to extol the virtues of temple reconstruction, but because he wanted to recruit these millenarians in support of his party’s opposition to Sharon’s plan. To that extent, Eldad was the spoiler. “In my estimation,” Eldad told the audience, “if we put the Third Temple at the centre of our thinking, the world will see us as psychos.” Eldad began more fiercely than he might have, perhaps because he knew that for this audience building the Third Temple is paramount. In their minds, setting the stage for the return of the Messiah must move ahead. If Eldad is to successfully recruit them, he would first need to break the fixation, wean them from the grip of an Eternal Return. “We now have the capacity to enlist hundreds of thousands of people to impede Sharon’s Disengagement Plan,” he told the audience. “On the other hand, we do not have the capacity to enlist nearly as many people to help with the struggle for the Temple.” The audience did not like what they heard, and many left visibly upset. But Eldad left knowing that when the time comes, many of these zealots would join the army expected to gather this summer to confront Sharon in the Gaza Strip.

Eldad’s office is a small cubicle, with a tiny, congested antechamber that his two assistants barely fit into. As I enter, he greets me with an outstretched hand, and points to a map pinned to the wall. The map is titled “Naqba,” meaning “catastrophe,” which is the way Arabs refer to Israel’s war of independence in 1947. It is densely dotted with settlements, all retaining their pre-1947 Arabic names. “This is what the Arabs want,” Eldad tells me. But I’m not interested in generalizations. I want him to help me unravel the surrealism of the Temple Feast. Eldad hesitates, before explaining that in Judaism the Temple has always stood as a vivid image of redemption. In Jewish liturgy, the reconstructed Temple provides an “end point” that focuses strivings, justifies pain and loss, and answers the question “what for?” in a manner that people can easily understand. It imbues the daily struggle with a clear and distinctive purpose. Without the Temple, Eldad continues, “Israelis would have about as much moral right to be in this country as the crusaders had to be in Palestine. Secular Jews, on the other hand, think they can do without the symbol. But they can’t.”

Eldad’s point is well-taken. Consider that in the army, skullcap-wearing young men constitute more than 40 percent of all officers. That number has risen from less than 2 percent thirty years ago and is disproportionately larger than the number of religious Jews within the population at large.

Before the war in Lebanon, officers were drawn largely from middle-class secular families. But the war in Lebanon that raged from 1982-1985 changed all of that. The middle class suddenly felt alienated from both their government, which had shifted to the right, and from an army that allowed the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians living in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The post-Lebanon era saw the children of moderate left-wing families turn away from executive functions in the military. It was precisely at this point that religious leaders initiated campaigns to get religious youth into officers’ school. One of the most worrisome consequences of this trend was highlighted in February when over 10,000 soldiers and reservists signed a petition stating that they would refuse any order having to do with the evacuation of settlers. Eldad’s argument is an interesting way of explaining both the shift and the loosening hold of secular Israelis on the national political agenda.

I asked Eldad how he, as a physician, could support the continued presence of the military in Gaza given that it was bleeding away resources that could otherwise be funnelled into health care. But Eldad claims it will cost even more to secure the borders after disengagement. The idea struck me as counterintuitive, and I asked for some proof. He had none. But what becomes perfectly clear is that the claim that disengaging from Gaza will be cheaper than maintaining the status quo has not been amply grounded. “The Army chief of staff promised that we would need far fewer soldiers to defend the borders in areas where the security wall was erected,” Eldad tells me. “But that is not true. Besides, in this case Sharon is giving away something for nothing. At most, he is exchanging land for time, not land for peace or security.”

Eldad smokes Captain Black, a brand of sweet, scented cigarillos, and partway through our conversation he leans over to open the window. We can hear the sounds of drum circles and the savage blowing of rams’ horns—the same sort of horns that Joshua used to fell the Biblical walls of Jericho. Approximately 150,000 protesters have lodged themselves just outside the Knesset’s outer wall. This great camp meeting is now in its twenty-fourth hour. Settlers from the West Bank, Gaza, and thousands more from religious institutes all around the country have erected long lines of tents purchased at taxpayers’ expense. Open kitchens stand next to prayer stalls. “This is what I am talking about,” Eldad tells me. “Unless the government falls or Sharon changes his mind and backs off, these people, and even more of them, will join the resistance. They will come down to Katif from the mountain regions, from Hebron and Nablus. And if the army closes the roads, they will come by foot. And if the military erects barbed-wire fences, they, and their young children, will prostrate themselves on the fences. And it will only be a matter of time before someone, a soldier or a settler, begins the shooting, which could easily turn into a bloodbath and escalate from there into an all-out civil war.”

As the crisp alpine air cascades down from the mountains, it is warmed by the sun and pickled by the salt of the sea. Perhaps it is the tempered clime of the coastal region that renders the settlers of the Gush Katif in the southern Gaza Strip more moderate than those in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. But it’s also a fact that in Gaza, unlike Hebron, settlers spend more time working the land than engaging in the less pecuniary work of the Lord. Most are farmers, or they provide services: teachers, doctors, store owners.

Early plans to settle Gaza were laid out in a recently discovered document entitled “The Gaza Region and Northern Sinai: An Overview.” The plan, also referred to as The Five Finger Plan, was requisitioned by then Prime Minister Golda Meir in the 1970s, and called for settlements to be built in five distinct regions of the Strip. The idea was to break up Arab communities, and today it is impossible to say whether Gush Katif was built for security reasons or for purely colonial purposes. In any case, the document was shelved for ten years, and it was really only in 1982 that the government of Israel began parcelling out land to settlers, many of whom were working class and fired up by the opportunity to partake in the old Zionist dream. There is little question that subsequent Israeli governments have all been perfectly prepared to exploit every enthusiasm they could harness.

Debbie Rosen, the information officer for the region, wants the photographer Miki Kratsman and me to record the accomplishments of the settlers. “Since Sharon announced his Disengagement Plan, I have taken literally thousands of journalists on this tour,” Rosen tells us. “A writer from Vanity Fair has just left after spending three weeks working very closely with me. Like all journalists that meet with us, this one too left understanding that we are not maniacs and unreasonable zealots. Every reporter wants to know the same thing. ‘Will there be violence? Will you resist Sharon?’ I tell them our slogan. ‘We have love, and we will prevail.’ ”

A mile down the road, Rosen stops outside a neat row of hothouses. A pickup truck dusts up beside us. It’s Anita Tucker from Brooklyn. “I grow celery,” Tucker tells us, lifting the plastic tarpaulin doors of the hothouse so we can enter. Tucker is a short, boxy woman in her sixties. Dressed in jeans, a buttoned-down shirt, and a cap, she retains her Brooklyn inflection though she has lived in the Gush for more than two decades. Tucker uproots several stalks of celery from one of the hundreds of pots in the greenhouse. She hands one to each of us. “Biblical law requires that the earth be left fallow on the seventh year,” she says. “And because this is the seventh year, everything in Katif has been uprooted and replanted in pots.” She does not seem to get the irony—the coincidence of uprooted crops and the impending disengagement of the region’s farmers.

She tells us a great number of stories about how she managed to grow her product in topsoil so poor that none of her fellow farmers believed anything would grow in it, and how she fell upon a rare breed of bee that now does all the celery pollination that was once done by hired hands. All her stories include some miraculous element. They seem informed by an inward enthusiasm that may owe a debt to some religious calling—or more likely it is the vestige of the Zionist dream in which malaria-filled swamps and arid wastelands were forever being transformed into lands of milk and honey.

The Zionist dream is still very much alive in all areas of Israeli life. Veterans in the agricultural communities, but also many in the cities and many Israeli youth who attend to weekly meetings of the Tsofim (scouts), are all guardians of the old spirit of Israel as settlement. So, even as polls show that the majority of Israelis are in favour of disengagement, there are many who may come out of the closet in empathy should violence erupt. This possible conjoining of the ideology of the settler movement with the just-below-the-surface Zionism inherent in the country as a whole is the most worrisome feature of the Disengagement Plan. A minor incident could ignite a great many memories, and burst into a conflict far more intense than most pundits are predicting.

Tucker walks us through a new packaging plant that was erected well after the Disengagement Plan was announced. “In the Gush, we do not believe Sharon’s plan will go forward. We continue in our routines, and believe that doing so is the best kind of protest,” she tells us. “I am a grandmother. I have never hurt a fly, and before the Oslo Agreement [1993] my family and I regularly interacted with the Arabs. We went to the dentist in Khan Yunis and shopped in Gaza City. But things have changed. Soon after Shimon Peres brought in Yasser Arafat, we were no longer able to employ Arabs, and soon after that we no longer interacted with them. I want to go back to the pre-Oslo days. I want to stay here and teach Palestinians the virtues of coexistence. If we disengage now, before the Arabs have learned about peace, it will be a disaster.”

Earlier I talked with Brigadier General Gideon Netzer, who claimed that when the first bullet is fired on a soldier it will be the end of the state of Israel as we now know it. “Our society is bifurcated all the way down. Schisms exist between the zealots and the liberals, between various ethnic communities: the Ethiopians, Yemenites, Moroccans, Iraqis, and Europeans, between the rich and poor. The only melting pot we have in this country is the army. In active service there is no difference between the son of a high-tech billionaire and the son of an impoverished Ethiopian.

“This is the sanctity of the Israeli Army,” continued Netzer. “Its holiness is not only in the way it serves and protects, but perhaps more so in the way it makes this country possible. A settler’s gun aimed and fired at a single soldier fatally wounds the institution as a whole. And fatally wounds the nation.”

En route to the municipal centre, we bump into a tanned rock of a man called Menachem Bar Yehuda. Before the second Intifada broke out in 2000, Bar Yehuda ran a restaurant in an old three-storey building that once housed the Egyptian military. He is on the way to a funeral, but invites us upstairs, into the dilapidated second-floor room overlooking a gorgeous beach and turquoise water.

“I am simply not arrogant enough to know what will happen if Sharon tries to force us out,” Bar Yehuda says. His button-brown eyes burn as he works up into the subject. “Settlers will stare him down. Sharon has far more to lose and more at stake than people realize. He will not order the police or the army to use force, but will find some political way to back off this project. After all, the evangelist George Bush does not really want us to give up on the Biblical dream and the promise. In Washington, Sharon will be understood if he attempts to disengage and fails. But even so, for myself, I simply cannot say what I will do when the day of reckoning finally comes.”

Earlier that morning, Kratsman and I talked about an article that I had read in the local papers about how the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, was attempting to recruit informers. I wondered who would break rank and inform on his fellow settlers. To this end, we struck up a conversation with the young proprietor of a restaurant. “My family owns this place and a catering business, which we run from the back. But if the government makes me the right offer, I would gladly move.” I ask the fellow whether there were folks in town that would be less glad? “Yes, there are,” Could he point us to a real hothead? Yes he could, and he when names the person, I realize how easy it could be for the Shabak to ferret out troublemakers, and how little loyalty exists within this settlement.

Yigal Kirshenzaft, the general manager of the Talmud Torah Girls School, was the first to settle in the town. He lives in a one-storey, white stucco bungalow with his wife and twelve children. In his fifties, tall, blue-eyed, sporting a prophet’s beard, Kirshenzaft is either Ezekiel or Charlton Heston playing Ezekiel. “You do not need to be a prophet to know that there will be violence,” he says. “It is enough that supporters who will come from everywhere will find the main road blocked and will look for detours, cut fences, cross minefields. Look at what happened last week when a soldier hit one of our children. We returned an eye for an eye, as it is written.”

The young restaurateur, I tell Kirshenzaft, declared that if the money were right he’d gladly move. “But he is the exception,” he replies. “When the Intifada broke out in 2000 and we began getting showered with Qassam rockets, those settlers who were here for economic reasons left—some 10 percent. But we have since welcomed many more families and are now filled to capacity. This evening, we are interviewing three young families who have just now applied for residence. They all know that 5,300 Qassam rockets have been dropped on our community. And still they want to move in.”

I ask Kirshenzaft why anyone would want to move here—given that the whole place may be uprooted. “It is not going to happen,” he insists. “It is not written. Besides, 30,000 people across Israel have signed to join in the resistance. We have opened a hundred new clubhouses where our supporters meet on a regular basis to plan our strategies. We believe that Ariel Sharon will not go through with it. We think he has only put this plan forward as a way of avoiding being brought to trial on corruption charges.”

As Kratsman and I get up to leave, several of Kirshenzaft’s children saunter in carrying phylacteries, small leather boxes worn for religious ceremonies. “Will you put on tefillin?” they ask. Kirshenzaft has been a gracious host, and for a moment I consider lending him my arm to perform the ritual. But something inside me rails up, and all I can offer is a handshake.

Back in the municipal centre, we have been waiting to interview Yitzhak Elya, assistant chief of the municipality. Elya has been out on a tour with Knesset members all day and arrives an hour later than expected. Outside, the sun is setting, and Kratsman and I want to get out of the Strip before dark. But Rosen wants to show us the missile museum in the basement. Her young son runs to pick up one of the heavier shells, and is proud that he can lift the weight. A camouflage uniform once worn by a terrorist is displayed on the wall like a prize catch over a mantel. Rosen tells us that one of the settlers was responsible for the terrorist’s death.

Elya finally arrives and we head to his office on the second floor. “I lie awake at night wondering whether I should inform my community of all that I know. I wonder whether I should tell people the government has already rented hotel space outside of the Strip and intends to keep them in temporary residences until more formal arrangements can be made. I wonder if I should tell people that transport and food and a hundred other issues have been settled. ‘What will happen if they know?’ ”

I ask whether he will let the settlers from the mountain regions into Katif. He responds without hesitation. “The army will stop them from getting here. But if they come, I could not possibly turn them back. They are my brothers.”

On the road to Tel Aviv we pass several Arab shantytowns. Kratsman is agitated. “These settlers live in a virtual reality,” he says. “They live as though 1.2 million Arabs were not also living in the Strip. They accept as if it were a given that 30,000 soldiers should be deployed to keep them safe. They think it is fine to live in villas fifty metres down the road from the world’s worst slums. Like the South Africans who simply did not see the hunger, poverty, and disease in the townships, these settlers still wonder why things blow up in their face.”

I listen, and sadly think about this Disney World in the sand, and then about the last exchange I had with Eldad.

“What will you be doing if there is a confrontation?” I asked him. “Will you attempt to stop the violence?”

“No,” he responded. “But I will be ministering to the wounded.”

David Berlin
David Berlin is the founding editor of The Walrus and author of The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State.