Anti-pullout protesters blocked a major highway near Tel Aviv, disrupted an Israeli army graduation ceremony for new officers, and tried to march on a highly sensitive religious site in Jerusalem this week. The three protest actions were launched in just three days by opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank.
At this rate, when the time for withdrawal rolls up late July, the country will have been paralyzed by the anti-withdrawal camp spearheaded by Jewish settlers.
That is precisely their plan. A group of ultra-nationalist Jews announced recently that they would bring thousands of people to a disputed religious site holy to both Jews and Muslims in the Old City of Jerusalem. Police deployed some 3,000 officers in the area this week to keep the group away from the site and to head off the possibility of violent confrontations with thousands of Palestinians who had gathered to wait for them.
In the end, only a few dozen demonstrators turned up. But while the protest was a failure in numeric terms, it was a success in strategic terms the small number of protesters had forced the police to deploy in large numbers to ensure there was no flare-up.
Organizers of the event called it a trial run: come the withdrawal from Gaza, opponents of Sharon’s plan have said they will carry out acts of protest and civil disobedience across Israel including the blocking of major traffic intersections in an effort to divert Israeli security forces away from dismantling settlements.
Police minister Gideon Ezra conceded that the protesters in Jerusalem had succeeded in tying up the security forces. We’ve got around 3,000 (police) from all around the country brought into Jerusalem, instead of doing what they have to do in other places, he said. During a recent trip to the United States, Sharon said in a television interview that the atmosphere in Israel was like the eve of a civil war.
Sharon plans to break settler resistance before the withdrawal begins by getting residents in settlements slated for evacuation to accept compensation and relocate in Israel proper. He has already met with some prominent settler figures from Gaza about relocating en masse to a coastal area north of the Strip.
A growing number of Gaza settlers are talking compensation, but they want the government to increase the sums being offered. Sharon will be encouraged by the fact that for them the key issue is not to resist withdrawal but to find ways to live normal lives once they have been relocated.
But that does not mean that all of about 7,000 settlers in Gaza are ready to make Sharon’s life easy. Some time before the pullout commences, the army is planning to block all access points to the Strip to stop anti-withdrawal protesters many from the West Bank which has more than 200,000 settlers.
The military hopes to complete the withdrawal in the space of a month, but senior officers concede that if thousands of demonstrators do manage to outflank them and reach the settlements, the operation will become considerably more complicated and lengthy.
The police and the army have been training special units to deal with settlers who refuse to leave their homes and who might even resist evacuation. Defense minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the military this week to draw up a plan for the collection of army-issued weapons from settlers to ensure that extremists do not open fire on troops. He has also agreed that troops carrying out the evacuation will be unarmed.
But the real threat to the withdrawal might not lie in Gaza. Former prime minister Ehud Barak has spoken recently of a small group of extremists some of whom are graduates of elite Israeli army units who might be planning to carry out attacks to thwart the withdrawal.
One target is Sharon himself. In recent months his security has been beefed up. Security around prime ministers has been tight already since a lone, far-right assassin gunned down former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin about 10 years ago.
This week two demonstrators carrying signs saying "Jews don’t expel Jews" managed to get into a center between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where an officers’ graduation ceremony was taking place. They came to within just a few meters of chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon.
The security forces’ greatest fear, though, centers on what is possibly the most hotly disputed piece of real estate on the planet the holy site in Jerusalem where far-right Jewish demonstrators gathered this week. For Muslims it is the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and it is their third holiest site. The hilltop compound contains the al-Aqsa mosque and is the area from where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven. For Jews it is the area where the two biblical temples stood before they were destroyed, and it is their holiest site.
The site has sparked bloodshed in the past. A visit by Ariel Sharon to the compound in September 2000 when he was opposition leader led to violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, which ultimately escalated into the second Intifadah (Palestinian uprising). In the early 1980s, a group of Jewish extremists plotted to blow up mosques there, but were caught in time.
For the Israeli security establishment this could bring the ultimate confrontation: were extremists to succeed in harming the mosques, their actions would reverberate throughout the Muslim world, and could precipitate regional violence that would prevent the withdrawal from taking place.