An Israeli from New Jersey became the first soldier Tuesday to be sentenced to prison for refusing this week to take part in Israel's evacuation of the Gaza Strip, underlining how the country is increasingly at odds with itself over the pullout.
"A Jew doesn't expel a Jew," said Cpl. Avi Bieber, 19, as soldiers wrestled with protesters trying to block the demolition Sunday of abandoned buildings on the Gaza coast. The antidisengagement clashes later fanned out to shoulders of major highways and on Wednesday the demonstrators are expected to shut down traffic.
The creeping defiance of a minority of Israelis ideologically and religiously opposed to the evacuation of 25 settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank has put Israel's government on the defensive. In the middle lies a largely silent majority that polls show is becoming increasingly anxious about the wisdom of evacuating 9,000 settlers in the absence of a peace treaty.
"We've lost the unity that's kept us going in the last four years of war with the Palestinians," says Yossi Klein Halevi, an expert on the settlers at the Shalem Center think tank. He added that the rift in Israel today is reminiscent of the strife surrounding the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a decade ago.
"We've gone from being a stable united society, to suddenly declaring war against ourselves," says Mr. Halevi.
The first-ever withdrawal from territories claimed by Palestinians as part of a future state was initially justified by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a unilateral action made necessary by the absence of a peace partner. That argument became muddled after the election of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas raised the possibility of negotiations.
Now, in the final weeks before the pullout, the settlers and their allies are becoming increasingly desperate and believe they can force the government somehow to change direction, says Halevi.
Since May, more than a hundred settlers have taken up residence in an abandoned Gaza beach resort. The squatters say that they hope to encourage more settlers to join them to make the government's evacuation more difficult. But there are concerns that the resort could become a base for violent resistance. Fearing that other empty structures would be targets for takeover, the army moved in to demolish them - prompting the Sunday protests.
Undaunted by the demolition of the structures built by Egypt before Israel seized Gaza in 1967, settlers upped the ante on Tuesday by moving into a nearby home owned by the Mowassi, a tribe of Palestinian Bedouins who live inside the Gush Katif settlement enclave, Israeli media reported.
Corporal Bieber, whose on-camera insubordination startled a country bracing itself for widespread clashes not expected for a few weeks, was sentenced by an army commander Tuesday to 56 days in military prison.
Bieber has become an overnight darling of Israelis who accuse Mr. Sharon of duplicity in pushing ahead with the evacuation of settlers from their homes. Observers take it as a sign that the pullout will be much more difficult to accomplish than initially anticipated.
"The lesson that I am learning from this event is that it's going to repeat itself on a much bigger scale when it comes to the real evacuation," says Shlomo Hasson, a geography professor at Hebrew University. "We thought that we could go through this process of disengagement perhaps without violence - [and certainly without] bloodshed. Now we can see we are reaching a point where there might be bloodshed."
Bieber's family left Passaic, N.J., nine years ago en route to Israel and now lives in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, a community dominated by religious Zionists for whom the government-ordered withdrawals clash with a belief in a Bible-rooted right to the land.
Explaining their son's refusal as an act of solidarity with "the Land of Israel," Bieber's parents said they were proud of the example he set.
"I hope that other soldiers will follow their hearts and do what they feel is right," says Michelle Bieber. "I wouldn't tell others to do what my son did, but I would hope that they would follow their own conscience."
The first violation of military orders in Gaza sparked rumors of other soldiers who have acted in the same vein. Mrs. Bieber reported that another dozen or so soldiers in her son's unit had announced plans to refuse the evacuation directive. The army denied the claim.
Military officers have done their best to play down the significance of the incident.
"This isn't a phenomenon, not now and not in the future, and we need to keep it in proportion," says Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
Two Israeli polls earlier this month showed that supportfor the disengagement dropped to around 50 percent from about two-thirds a few months ago. Opposition has risen from 27 percent to 38 percent.
In an effort to dull opposition to the evacuation, the government approved a plan earlier this week offering Gaza settlers plots of real estate on land near the Nitsanim sand dunes. Lying just north of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, the area is attractive to settlers because of its proximity to the sea.
But as long as pullout opponents can push the boundaries of the law by fomenting clashes with soldiers and blocking highways, a cloud will remain over the disengagement as well as Israel's democracy, say observers.
"Most of the public is being put to the test now, and they can't fail," says Yair Orbach, who lectures soldiers on why he opposes refusal even though he disagrees with the disengagement. "The price is the dismemberment of Israeli society."