Biblical ties drive Gaza holdouts

Violence erupted in some areas Tuesday hours before the midnight deadline for all settlers to leave Gaza.

Even as hundreds of Israeli soldiers and policemen broke through the gate of this settlement Tuesday in an attempt to escort out families ready to leave with their belongings rather than be pulled out by force, Mordechai Yaul was cementing blue and azure ceramic tiles to the wall of a new mikvah, for Jewish ritual bathing.

Mr. Yaul, a rotund schoolteacher in his mid-50s, moved here from a West Bank settlement three months ago in the hope he could prevent Israel from pulling out of the territory, close to four decades after it seized the coastal strip from Egypt. But Yaul, who has a long white beard and specks of spackling along his forehead, isn't driven solely by the events of this century or the last.

His timeline dates back to the beginning, he says, when God showed Abraham the Promised Land and told him to go into it. And then, a little more recently, about 3,200 years ago, when Joshua bin Nun - who took over the leadership of the Israelites after the death of Moses - led the people back into the land of Israel after their period of slavery in Egypt.

Israel's roots in Gaza

"The Holy One, blessed be He, promised this land to our forefather, Abraham," says Yaul, as he glues the tiles in place in anticipation of a ceremony Tuesday to inaugurate the mikvah, used by Orthodox Jewish women once a month, and by some men before the Sabbath.

"When God promises us something, it's not a game, like a promise from the prime minister. My hope is that there will be a miracle - there have always been miracles."

The construction amid the impending destruction - the Israeli army has plans to raze virtually all buildings here after all Israelis are moved out and military installations are dismantled - seems jarring, if not a waste of energy and resources.

But for the deeply religious who remain convinced that this coastal plain must remain a part of Israel, a different kind of reality runs the show.

Their language is a spiritually infused settlement-speak that provides the vocabulary for understanding a subculture that is quite different from the majority of Israelis, about 80 percent of whom define themselves as secular or traditional. Their behavior is intended as an act of faith that somehow the disengagement plan can be stopped. Their belief dictates that if they are forced out they will somehow be brought back again.

"We look at something much bigger than just the map of the Middle East," he says. "If we get thrown out now," he says, "we'll come back in five years, or 100."

According to some historical documents, Gaza had a Jewish community at different points in history, although there is no agreement on how many Jews lived there or how consistently. Jews from Gaza are mentioned in the Talmud. In the 17th century, a Turkish rabbi named Shabbetai Zvi visited Gaza and met a fellow mystic, known as Nathan of Gaza, who made him infamous in the Jewish world after he convinced him - and his followers - that he was the Messiah.

The remains of a 6th century Jewish synagogue, discovered in what today is Palestinian Authority-run Gaza City, were mentioned in the 1995 Olso II Accords as a Jewish holy site that Israel should be allowed to have access to in the future.

But historical roots alone have never amounted to a clear guideline for how Jewish religious authorities view the issue of withdrawing from land that some Israelis view as a biblical birthright. While some rabbis influencing the settler movement have ruled that it is forbidden for Jews to give up any part of Israel - and they include Gaza in this estimation - others say that if it would save lives and lead to peace, territorial compromise is acceptable.

Letting go of history

Interestingly, one of the leading rabbis in Yaul's home settlement of Alon Shvut, Aharon Lichtenstein, has ruled in support of disengagement.

Many Israelis are more concerned with making it feasible to hold onto key settlements in the West Bank, which are widely considered to have more strategic as well as historical and religious significance. Palestinians, however, worry that the disengagement plan is a way to ensure that parts of the West Bank - which they hope to have as part of their future state - will no longer be negotiable.

But for Yaul, what's more interesting about Alon Shvut, a settlement south of Bethlehem, is that Jews had a settlement there until 1948, when they lost it to Arab forces during the war that led to Israel's establishment.

In 1967, when Israel regained it, they built Alon Shvut - a name that literally means "return to the oak tree," named for a tree they could see in the distance. As such, Yaul and a group of other men continued building the mikvah Tuesday as a sign of the belief that they would come back.

Yaul went back to his mikveh building, helping a friend weld together pipes with a blowtorch, while down the road, bigger fires burned.

Masses of disengagement protests had set off a large fire to block the settlement's main artery, keeping out a line of moving trucks that had come to pick up the belongings of families who were ready to go of their own accord and wanted to bring their household contents with them. For hours Tuesday, the protesters threw eggs at the Israeli forces, and sometimes worse: a rock that hit a policeman in the head, and a chemical substance in a police photographer's face.

Although tension between the settlers and soldiers is already soaring, the actual drive to remove settlers from Gaza is to begin Wednesday.

Yehuda Amar, a father of five whose job it is to write Torah scrolls, looks out at the standoff between Israeli and Israeli. "I told my kids not to curse them or be violent with them," he says, but admits that he's not even sure how to behave.

He compares the people of Israel now to the moment when, after leaving Egypt, the Israelites are chased by Pharoah's army to the shores of the Red Sea. He recalls the Jewish legend in which a man named Nachshon, sure that God would save the people, jumped into the water and moved in until it was up to his head. To others, he looked ready to drown. Instead, the sea opened.

"That's us," says Mr. Amar. "We're standing at the water's edge and we will struggle until the last minute."

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