Gaza draws outside extremists into fray

Benjamin Netanyahu resigned Sunday to protest the pullout.

The M16s were piled like firewood. Every man in the community had set his Israeli army-issue rifle and ammunition on a table to send a message: We will not train our guns on our own soldiers.

But the image of nonviolence this settlement of 80 families hoped to send quickly faded when a Jewish extremist AWOL from military service opened fire last week on a busload of Druze citizens whom he presumed to be Arab. After the shooting that killed four, Eden Natan-Zada was beaten to death by a mob.

The attack fed what some settlers see as an emerging gap between what they will do to stop disengagement, and what ultranationalist extremists may do to reignite the Arab-Jewish conflict in an effort to halt Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of settlers.

The bloodshed, as well as the tension pitting protesters against policemen, shows Gaza's place as a battleground attracting footsoldiers who are from somewhere else. Gaza, it seems, has become the proxy war for the survival of the settlement enterprise in general - and the West Bank settlements in particular.

Underscoring how precarious Israel's political situation is, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - a controversial prime minister in the 1990s - quit Mr. Sharon's government Sunday, citing opposition to the pullout plan.

To people in some southern settlements, last week's shooting on the bus in the Druze village of Shfaram is a disturbing sign of what could lie ahead.

"What he did with this shooting, it's a bullet in all of our heads," says Gavriel Yitzhak, a farmer and father of four who lives in the small settlement of Morag. Netzarim, Kfar Darom, and Morag are the first settlements to be authorized for evacuation after a vote Sunday by Sharon's cabinet.

"If disengagement happens, there will be violence," says Mr. Yitzhak's wife, Nurit, frying up the eggplants from her husband's greenhouse, "but it won't be coming from us."

For many settlers here who consider themselves the mainstream, the leadup to the disengagement is sparking a sharper sense of distinction between us and them.

"Us" is the people who live here, the real residents who came mostly for a better life, who would like to stay but not if it means an outbreak of violence. "Them" is the people coming from outside, infiltrating Gaza and camping out in settlements where they're not always wanted. "Them" means the people going to the demonstrations, the people breaking the law, the people acting illegally, and in the worst-case scenario, the people ready to resort to violence.

"All the protesters? They're from the outside," says Yitzhak. "The people who are from here don't go to those things."

He doesn't support Sharon's plan either. The Yitzhak family hasn't packed anything in their spacious two-story home, and they don't plan to do so. If Israeli soldiers come to their door, they say, and order them to get out, they'll leave their things behind and let the army pack them up in a statement of protest. But they do not, they say, dream of physically resisting evacuation.

"I have two kids in the army," says Mrs. Yitzhak. "How can I resist our own soldiers? But these guys," she says, with a tilt of her head to indicate other people, "they will fight until the last minute, and then maybe they will fire."

Just a few houses away from where the Yitzhak family lives is a group of tents where activists from Yesha - the political organization that represents all Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza - have set up shop. But the neighbors have begun to complain that these activists in the tents, most of them here illegally, are young and much more hard core in their politics than most of the settlers who arrived here 20 years ago.

What's more, many of "them" have come unprepared, and have turned to asking the long-established settlers for food and other provisions. Many of the residents, already under the stress of not knowing where they'll be living this time next month, are growing resentful of having to help house or feed people they've never met before.

Ruth Lieberman, a spokeswoman for Yesha, says that it has at least 2,000 activists who have managed to base themselves in Gaza to oppose disengagement. Gaza is now closed to nonresident Israelis.

"We're telling everyone they should come in however they can without using violence, and if they get in, they should stay there," Mrs. Lieberman says. "If their presence helps the local people, great. And if it helps to prevent the disengagement, that's a positive thing."

The typical profile of an activist ready to smuggle himself into Gaza is, analysts say, from a very different demographic than the actual people who live there. The activists - whether they lean toward civil disobedience or outright violence - are generally young men from national-religious backgrounds who grew up in the settlements in the West Bank. Men who are newly religious or messianic - those who think that the great struggle they're participating in could hasten the coming of the Messiah - are, according to security experts, more likely to resort to extremist behavior.

In contrast, says Prof. Yossi Katz of Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the Gaza settlers generally come from so-called development towns in the south: places where immigrants from Eastern countries were sent. They went to Gaza, he says, mainly in search of a better quality of life, and not out of any core beliefs about Gaza being part of the Promised Land of "Greater Israel."

"This is a real gap," says Mr. Katz, a geopolitics expert. "The people who are coming to Gaza from Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and from inside the Green Line [Israel's pre-1967 borders], are people who think this is the first stage before the next stage of withdrawals. They're trying to cope with this issue from an ideological point of view ... but people in Gush Katif are not there for such strong ideological reasons."

For these activists, he says, the disengagement plan is a "real threat" against everything they hold dear. "This is a real battle against the ideology that Sharon has adopted, in contrast with theirs."

The result, he expects, will likely add up to more violence - and more trouble for Sharon's disengagement plan, with incumbent effects on Israeli-Palestinian relations. "There is a real ideological crisis going on ... and in a deep mental crisis you never know what people will do," he adds. "It's like the end of the world for some people."

Of course, not everyone is acting as if the end is near. Some of the neosettlers who have moved into Gaza to oppose the pullout say they are making a statement - a nonviolent one - with their very presence here.

"We came just last week," says Rivka Deutsch, a Jerusalemite who was watching the weapon-return ceremony. She, along with her husband and small children, moved to a bomb shelter in Netzer Hazani to protest the disengagement. About half of the settlement, she says, is now populated with people from somewhere else. "We'll stay, for however long it takes," she says.

At the same time, she feels bad for the people here, she says. After all, she'll probably be back in her apartment in Jerusalem next month. That means that some, perhaps many people, realize that disengagement will happen regardless of how many activists show up.

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