Stealing into Gaza, true believers see big setback for Jews

Jewish settlers mixed with some 4,000 protestors here, marking their last weekend in the Gaza Strip with an outpouring of mourning and prayer that promised to turn to defiance.

On Friday night, settlers sat at their Sabbath dinner tables - far fuller than usual in order to accommodate the influx of activists who have illegally entered the settlements. On Saturday night, they marked the start of Tisha B'Av - the date that commemorates several tragic events in Jewish history - with a day-long fast and the reading of the Book of Lamentations. By Sunday, people weeping for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem - first in 586 B.C. and then again in A.D. 70 - were saying a new wave of destruction was coming.

The movement to stop the disengagement process - intermingled with beliefs that it may be stopped through divine intervention - is now steeped in religious imagery. The coincidence of mourning ancient Jewish losses and the pending Israeli pullout seems to be leading opponents to a state of mind in which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government is the enemy.

The blending of past and present - plus the rush to stock up goods as though a major storm was about to blow through - adds to an atmosphere that some kind of cataclysmic event is at hand.

"Every minute that we delay them, every hour that we slow them down, it's a success that could prevent the plan from being carried out," Rafi Seri, the head of the Gush Katif Action Committee, told a crowd on several thousand people who had gathered here after the Saturday evening prayer service. "We won't leave and we won't make it easy for them."

Mr. Seri announced that the communities of the Gaza Strip would try to prevent the Israeli army from entering the settlements when they arrive Monday morning with eviction orders. Instead, says Seri, the settlers will awake early and lock the gates of their community. They will gather and read from the book of Psalms as the army tries to enter.

In a recent issue of Makor Rishon newspaper, a relatively new and popular daily which is sympathetic to the settlement movement, there was a mock-up photograph. The top half showed the Arch of Titus, which includes a relief that depicts Roman soldiers sacking the Jewish temple in A.D. 70 and then carrying away prisoners and precious artifacts, including the menorah. The bottom half of the photo shows the khaki green pants and brown boots of Israeli soldiers.

"I think it's a perfect picture," says Dror Vanunu, the spokesmen of Neve Dekelim, one of the largest of the 21 Gaza settlements. "It's the same then as now."

Mr. Vanunu and his wife, Keren, have an array of guests around their Shabbat dinner table, as is traditional. With the exception of two reporters, most of the guests entered Gaza illegally: the Israeli army closed it several weeks ago to non-residents. One single young woman got in by posing as a mamer of a married couple who lives here. Another smuggled himself in on a food truck. One young man is a soldier whose unit is posted in northern Israel. Using his uniform and knowledge of which units are assigned to the disengagement plan, he pretended he was from another unit to enter the settlements illegally - and plans to stay.

The dinner conversation includes a question: What will you bring to the misibat hodaya, or party for giving thanks? That is, to God, when the disengagement plan is somehow foiled.

During another conversation over a meal, the Lilianthals, who are great-grandparents, challenge the concept of democracy in Israel. "There is nothing sacred about democracy," says Elitzur Lilianthal. "Democracy is just a tool, and sometimes it's used for good, and sometimes for bad. Hitler also came to power in a democracy," he says.

Mr. Lilianthal comes from the West Bank settlement of Peduel. He entered several days ago by telling soldiers at the checkpoint that he was going to help his family members pack. In fact, little packing is going on.

Esther Lilianthal, an otherwise gentle family matriarch, says they have packed just a couple of boxes of holy books and other things of religious or sentimental value. But she did not pack her Sabbath candelabra, one she received for her last son's birth. She hopes that if soldiers come to evacuate them, the religious symbol will strike a chord in their hearts. "If they're going to take us out, I want them to feel bad about it," she says.

Most settlers don't advocate violent protest. But that sentiment isn't shared by some of the outside activists. Outside the two main synagogues on a wall of community bulletin boards is a long list of suggestions of ways to resist evacuation. Once dragged to the army's evacuation bus, the list says, "it is possible to rock it from side to side until it falls over." Another suggestion was to scream in a soldier's ear to make him lose his balance.

An Israeli army spokesman says that the date for the evacuation was chosen in part because the government wanted the Israeli families to be out of the Gaza Strip and settled in new places before the start of the new school year, on Sept. 1. An earlier evacuation date, set for mid-July was postponed particularly because the timing was seen as an offense to religious sensibilities. The delay, however, does not appear to have won any points here.

"I believe there won't be an evacuation," says a 19-year-old seminary student named Matanya. Wearing frizzy sidecurls that indicate a deeply religious outlook, he would only give his first name, because he readily admits that he will sabotage army equipment as part of his antidisengagement activities.

"Tisha B'Av has always been full of sadness, and one of the reasons is the sin of the spies," Metanya says, referring to a story in the Bible in which, after Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert, a group of spies from each of the 12 tribes goes into the land of Israel to scope it out.

For some ultranationalists, the lesson is that fear of another people - as well as internal divisions - are what led to the destruction and exile. Most Jews say that the story of Tisha B'Av is meant to be an admonition against hatred of one another.

The sense that the disengagement plan is already pitting Jew against Jew is a theme that settlement leaders have been focusing on, and are encouraging potential evacuees to appeal to the soldiers' sentiments when they try to force people from their homes. "I don't think it's a healthy thing that we will approach them as the hunter and us the hunted," Seri told his audience. "Don't raise a hand to them. You should approach them and say, 'My brother! How could you do it? It's a lie! It's a crime!'"

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