TEL AVIV — Ariel Sharon was in a confident, almost cheerful mood when he appeared this week before a joint meeting of two important Knesset committees. In a rare step, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was holding a public session, together with the Law and Constitution Committee, to discuss the state of preparations for the Gaza-West Bank disengagement plan.
Sharon, who usually views these Knesset appearances as a nuisance and regularly ducks them, seemed actually to be savoring the moment, taking his time to answer opposition members’ questions and make his intentions clear. “I tell you for the thousandth time,” he intoned at one point, “the withdrawal will take place according to schedule.”
Sharon had ample reason for optimism. Although assessing the odds of the disengagement’s completion is still considered a risky undertaking, this week marked some kind of turning point. After weeks of declining public support, the public appeared to rally behind the prime minister in a way that had not been seen before. A poll in early June showed that only about 50% of Israelis still supported the withdrawal, down from 60%-plus when it was first announced and ratified in the Knesset. Last Friday, however, polls showed that support was back up, surpassing 60% once again.
The turn, crucially, is not just toward the prime minister but against his opponents. While much of the public continues to view the plan as shabbily conceived and badly thought through, sympathy for the settlers has turned to anger in large sectors of the public. Where once they were seen as pioneers and patriots forced to bear the cost of Sharon’s plans, the waning days of June saw their sympathy suddenly dissolve.
The turning point was an attempt by the opposition to “bring the country to a halt” by blocking major intersections during the afternoon rush hour on June 29. Hundreds of protesters took to the highways in precisely coordinated actions, beginning at 5:10 p.m.
Similar protests had been mounted against the Oslo Accords 10 years ago, and they succeeded in raising the opposition’s consciousness and profile. This time, the police were better prepared — and the drivers were less tolerant.
The anger began spreading throughout the country’s urban centers by midmorning, following reports that protesters had spread oil and sharp spikes on the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway — a steep, winding road, where a punctured tire can be fatal.
By the time the coordinated highway blockades began in the afternoon, drivers were spoiling for a fight. One group of youths blocking the Ayalon Freeway, the main highway into Tel Aviv, immediately encountered a truck driver who leaped from his cab with a crowbar and waded into the protesters, swinging. The police intervened quickly, arresting more than 100 demonstrators and breaking up the protest before traffic was seriously affected. Similar if less extreme confrontations were reported elsewhere around the country.
Even more damaging to the settlers’ image were a series of incidents that same day in Gaza, the main area facing evacuation. Several dozen right-wing extremists had barricaded themselves in mid-June in a beachfront hotel in Neveh Dekalim, a settlement in southern Gaza. After days of indecision, during which the activists got into fights with neighboring Arabs and invited journalists in to photograph the hotel’s fortifications, army and police units broke in Wednesday night and evacuated them.
It was over in a half-hour, puncturing the rightists’ image as fearsome resisters who would go down fighting. At the same time, the fighting that did take place between rightists and soldiers did little to endear the protesters to Israel’s security-minded public.
Still worse was an incident in a nearby Arab neighborhood, Muwassi, situated at the edge of Gush Katif, the main cluster of Gaza Jewish settlements. A group of Jewish extremists moved into unoccupied Palestinian homes early last week, and spent several days harassing local Arabs with stones and taunts while resisting evacuation.
On Wednesday, Israeli television cameras recorded an incident in which a group of Jewish militants cornered a Palestinian youth in a house and stoned him nearly to death. One army medic moved in to shield him but retreated before the hail of stones. He was finally saved by an Israeli journalist, Yitzhak Saban of Yediot Aharonot. The Hebrew media termed the event “a lynching” — a term that brought home still-vivid memories of the October 2000 incident in which two Israeli army reservists were murdered by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah.
For many, the confrontations served as a foretaste of what can be expected when the actual withdrawal begins. In a Yediot poll conducted Wednesday evening and published Friday, the public was almost evenly split on whether disengagement would be accompanied by bloodshed, with 44% saying it would and 48% saying it would not. And while the public now favors disengagement by 62% to 31%, opinions were evenly split, 47% to 47%, on whether the looming violence would prevent the withdrawal from being completed.
Senior political analyst Sima Kadmon, reporting the poll results, wrote that “the more settlers’ orange banners conquer the street and the violence spreads, the greater the anger and frustration of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens.”
“We had it coming,” Kadmon wrote. “We were silent when they beat, chased and harassed Palestinians. Did we think that someone who does this to Palestinians would stop at Jews?” But “this was also the settlers’ great mistake,” she wrote. “The revulsion that they couldn’t arouse in decades, the settlers have managed to create in a matter of days.”
At the same time, the experience may have changed the way the army and police go about their planning. After the Muwassi incident, the army’s chief of Southern Command, Brigadier General Dan Harel, declared all of Gaza a closed military zone; although it was re-opened only a day later, the edict conveyed a stern message. Closure imposes serious hardship on the entire settler community, and the army has fought to keep the strip open until just before evacuation. But if the extremists should push too hard, measures could be taken sooner rather than later.
And, in a sign of the growing polarization, Israeli military Chief of Staff Dan Halutz threatened this week to shut down the army’s network of military yeshivas if rabbinic preaching of disobedience did not cease.
Preparations on the ground, meanwhile, began to pick up pace. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, answering questions during the same July 4 Knesset meeting where the prime minister appeared, said that no fewer than 41,000 soldiers would take part in the operation, or about six troops for every evacuated settler. New stories have surfaced daily of settler families who are already leaving, or at least moving their agricultural equipment or negotiating for compensation. This further strengthens the feeling that the majority of settlers have accepted their fate.
Much could still change. Still, with the hardening of public sentiment behind the prime minister, both sides appear to be concluding that barring the unforeseen, the die has been cast.
And to reduce the likelihood of anything unforeseen, one more act of preparation was seen on Israel’s television screens this past Sunday. Exiting their weekly Cabinet meeting, all ministers were stopped by Shin Bet security service operatives and asked to try on their new mandatory piece of clothing: a bullet-proof vest.