Gaza pullout tests limit of dissent

Activists say Israel is curtailing their right to protest. Officials say protesters are breaking the law.

Ofir Handelsman thinks he holds the power to stop Israel's pullout from Gaza in the palm of his hand. Scribbled across his palm is the fake identity number that enabled him to sneak into Gush Katif, the collection of Jewish settlements in which he and other Israelis intend to make a last stand against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal, set for Aug. 17.

Ofir, just 17, carries the build and demeanor of a wrestler. He wears a sleeveless cut-off shirt, an orange cord and whistle around his neck signaling his opposition to the evacuation, and the backpack he is going to live out of for the foreseeable future.

"A few hundred of us came in," he says, slightly breathless as he and his buddies buzz around the Vanilla Sky restaurant, scrounging for a meal Wednesday night. "So many people will come that the army won't be able to remove us - and then, we hope, there won't be a disengagement."

Some Israelis see Ofir's action as valiant civil disobedience. Others decry flouting of the law. It's a debate that stretches beyond eminent domain to the heart of Israeli identity: property rights of the few vs. security of the many; political compromise vs. scriptural authority; and the right to self-expression vs. a government's right to implement key policies without interference.

Indeed, the country's roads themselves have quickly become a part of this battleground: opponents of disengagement throw nails on roads over which Israeli army jeeps will need to pass. And Wednesday, protesters shut down one of the country's most important arteries - the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway - with a row of burning tires.

Right-wing activists say that in a democracy, they should be free to protest. But Israel's security forces have been trying to limit the demonstrations - initially refusing to permit a large one Wednesday in Ofakim, outside Gaza. The attempt to clamp down, these activists say, is pushing protesters to more extreme measures.

But security officials and proponents of disengagement say that the people in orange - the color of the anti- withdrawal camp - are violating the law in their bid to prevent the execution of a major political decision that was made by the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

When the withdrawal begins, it will be the first time Israel will dismantle established settlements from any territory claimed by Palestinians for their future state. But at the moment, Israel seems more absorbed with the domestic side effects of the disengagement plan. As a result, many liberties are being put to the test in a way they never have before.

On the one hand, Israel is proud of its place as a feisty young democracy in a region awash in autocracies. On the other, the political necessity of carrying out the disengagement plan and the desire to implement it in as orderly a fashion as possible may be pushing Israeli officials to take measures that, some critics say, are more reminiscent of a police state than of a free country.

Even the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be illegal and strongly supports a withdrawal from these areas, fears that the police may run roughshod over the right to demonstrate.

ACRI made an official complaint about a two weeks ago when the organization learned that the police were stopping buses all over the country, as far as Kiryat Shemona in the far north of Israel - some five hours' drive away. Drivers of buses carrying anti-disengagement protesters were told by police that they would have their licenses revoked if they drove south with the protesters.

"The main thing we see is the police have a tendency to overact," says Yoav Loeff, an ACRI spokesman in Jerusalem.

An important Supreme Court case this week made clear that there is a fine line between demonstrating and being destructive.

The court rejected a petition from two right-wing activists who tried to appeal the army's evacuation of antidisengagement groups who were holed up in a hotel here. In the decision, the judges ruled that the activists were not expressing themselves but delivering a "severe blow to democracy."

"Freedom of expression is not a permit to throw burning tires at policemen or soldiers," Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak said in the ruling. "Freedom of expression is not a permit to attack one's fellow man; freedom of expression is not a permit to riot."

But for Yair Cohen, who has been living in this settlement since he was evacuated from Yamit in the Sinai, the very fact of being forced out from his home twice in his life is a symbol that Israel is not a true democracy.

"There's got to be a limit in a democracy," says Mr. Cohen, a father of five who stopped to talk after leaving evening prayers at the community's central synagogue here. "No democracy can take a person out of his house against his will. When you have 15,000 soldiers surrounding the demonstrators, that's a democracy?"

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