Orange revolt? Settlers see spectrum of support.

Two polls show that the Israeli public is getting cold feet over the planned Aug. 15 pullout from the Gaza Strip.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Chanting "the king is blind'' over the rhythm of drums, students who oppose Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank tied orange ribbons on passersby along a busy shopping district to show solidarity with Jewish settlers who are slated for evacuation.

The demonstration Sunday against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement initiative came just days after the country's Supreme Court ruled the pullout was legal. The decision seemingly exhausts legal appeals for Jewish settlers opposed to the planned Aug. 15 withdrawal, which the US hopes will kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But with Israeli support for disengagement waning and a recent spate of disorderly protests by settler groups, the stage is set for a drawn-out confrontation between the government and settlers and right-wing groups opposed to Mr. Sharon's plan.

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"In principle, everything has been decided,'' says Ayelet Shiher, a resident of the Gaza settlement of Netzarim. "But in a democracy people have the right to demonstrate. Public opinion is what influences the politicians.''

According to two polls released last week - one by Israel's public radio station and the second by a political talk show on Israeli television - support for the pullout has dropped to around 50 percent from nearly two-thirds of Israelis just a few months ago.

Settler leaders who once challenged the authenticity of the polls that showed a solid majority in favor of disengagement now hold up the new polls as proof of the opposite. Meanwhile, the orange ribbons (orange is the color of the Gaza settlement council's flag) have diverted attention from extremist activists who have closed down highways, which hurts sympathy for the settlers' fight against being uprooted.

If the ribbon campaign can erode another few percentage points, it's not too late to convince lawmakers in the Knesset, or parliament, to revisit the pullout decision, the settlers say.

"What counts is the trend, and there's no doubt that according to all the newspapers, the support has dropped. And that says something," says Pinchas Wallerstein, a member of the Yesha Council, the umbrella association of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. "There is no doubt that the struggle will be decided in the Knesset."

Disengagement has also been hurt by a spate of public criticism. Along with the ribbons, demonstrators also passed out fliers quoting Israeli doves who have predicted that withdrawal will only strengthen the Islamic militant group Hamas and spark a new Palestinian uprising.

And last week Sharon's own aide, National Security Council chief Giora Eiland, said the government is dragging its feet in gearing up for what would be the first dismantling of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

To be sure, political analysts are deeply skeptical whether the settlers can convince the Knesset to reopen the issue. The drop in support, they say, can be attributed to last week's spasm of rocket and mortar fire from Palestinian militants, stirring pessimism over whether the pullout will segue into a resumption of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in five years.

"When it snows in Gaza they'll stop the disengagement. Sharon has put his entire prestige on the line for this,'' says Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University. "There doesn't seem to be anything that can stop this train."

Noting that the West Bank and Gaza remain under military occupation, the Supreme Court justices ruled Israel's security concerns override claims by residents that their human rights are being violated. The court also rejected settler claims that a decision to evacuate settlements is unconstitutional without a public referendum.

The ruling wasn't a surprise, and settler spokesmen were quick to brush off the implications of the defeat.

"The Supreme Court isn't an expression of the public sentiment,'' says Kobi Bronstein, a spokesman for Gaza settler council. "The orange ribbons say everything. The public is stronger than politics."

Back on the crowded Tel Aviv street corner, Itzhak Shani debated the pullout with a settler activist wearing a orange T-shirt. Shani, a retired air force officer who had pinned a sign reading, "The pilots are disengaging," complained that the Israeli street had been abandoned by left-wing activists.

"The majority which supports the disengagement is a silent majority," he says. "[The demonstrators] believe in their path. They are doing something. The people identify with them."

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