Gaza Withdrawal Plan Stirs Up Protests in Israel

The impending pullout from the Gaza Strip has roiled the political waters in Israel. Anti-withdrawal protestors have blocked traffic on main highways and threaten more acts of civil disobedience. Some Gaza settlers are vowing to resist the pullout by all means.

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In Israel, the planned withdrawal from Gaza is stirring up strong feelings. Demonstrators opposed to the pullout have taken to the streets, burning tires and blocking traffic. Authorities have warned of threats against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Muslim holy sites. Polls show most Israelis support the evacuation of troops and settlers from Gaza, and they consider many of the recent protests unlawful. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, whatever their differences, Israelis share a collective sense of uncertainty about what disengagement may bring.

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JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Last week alone, Israeli police detained more than 400 activists protesting the planned Gaza pullout. The Israeli press reports some of those detained used their jail time to scrawl threats against Prime Minister Sharon on prison walls. The virulence of the protests has shocked many in Israel. Yediot Ahronot newspaper commentator Yair Lapid assailed the demonstrators' tactic of blocking highways, saying it endangered people's lives. He wrote: `The Israeli public finally understood what it feels like to live with roadblocks.'

While the attorney general issued guidelines on what is and what is not acceptable forms of protest, demonstrations continued this week, though quieter.

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McCARTHY: To oppose the Gaza disengagement, some 50 university students staged a hunger strike outside the supreme court. Members of parliament this week dropped by the student tents, festooned in the orange color of the anti-pullout campaign. Twenty-three-year-old Hebrew University medical student Hannah Adler says the hunger strikers disagreed with the more extreme protests that brought parts of the country to a standstill, but she says all the demonstrators share the conviction that Israel is compromising its security by leaving Gaza. And Adler says the fact that most Palestinians do not want Jewish inhabitants in Gaza is not reason enough to leave.

Ms. HANNAH ADLER (Medical Student, Hebrew University): I know they don't want me there, and they don't want me in Tel Aviv, either. So just because they don't want me in Tel Aviv and they don't want me in Jerusalem, I'm not going to leave.

McCARTHY: Rabbi Seth Mandel, who also opposes the pullout, says part of the difficulty of quitting the Gaza Strip is not knowing how it will play out.

Rabbi SETH MANDEL: If we give up our homes, if Gaza gives up their homes and there's peace, I think everybody will look at--back and go, `Whoa, hard, painful, but worth it.' If it results in a another wave of terror, if it does not impact on the international political situation, I think it will be an even deeper trauma. We've given up; we've sacrificed for nothing.

McCARTHY: A recent Maariv newspaper poll shows 59 percent of Israelis want the Jewish settlers to quit Gaza. But historian Benny Morris says alongside that sentiment is empathy for the families about to be expelled from their homes in an Israeli police operation.

Mr. BENNY MORRIS (Historian): There is a strong sense of peoplehood among the Jews, which is based in part on a terrible history of persecution by gentiles. And here, we have a state with our own policemen, but still, there is an echo of somebody brutalizing the Jew.

McCARTHY: The settlement movement warns that uprooting the 8,000 Jewish residents of Gaza is only the first stage to removing the far larger settler population from the West Bank. But Morris says, for many Israelis, one doesn't necessarily follow the other.

Mr. MORRIS: In other words, there will be a pullout from the Gaza Strip. It may be traumatic to some extent, or maybe to a large extent, and that, in itself, will assure that there will be no second stage, at least quickly. And certainly, I have a feeling that this is what Sharon is thinking, that he is not going to go in for a second stage.

McCARTHY: What happens after withdrawal is a source of rising debate here.

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McCARTHY: Students at Hebrew University, passing a day at their end-of-term festival, readily offered opinions. Twenty-five-year-old computer science student Ronan Zilberman(ph) says he is for leaving Gaza, but still, the anti-pullout campaign arouses his sympathies.

Mr. RONAN ZILBERMAN (Student, Hebrew University): I understand it's a very difficult thing for them, but I still think it's the right thing to do. It's, like, the only thing that you can do in order to have a possibility for peace.

McCARTHY: Thirty-year-old PhD candidate Hillah Baraush(ph) says Israel needs to get out of Gaza to make way for a Palestinian state. She sounds both optimistic and apprehensive.

Ms. HILLAH BARAUSH (Hebrew University): Nobody really knows what's going to happen when the disengagements really happens, because there are a lot of scary scenarios that are running through everybody's heads. But I don't know. I'm hoping that it won't get too bad.

McCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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