July 15, 2005

Israelis brace for weeks of pullout turmoil

By Jonathan Saul

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Vegetable supplier Shuki Mizrahi is
already losing patience with protesters opposed to Israel's
pullout from settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip.

When they spilled oil and scattered spikes on a highway and
blocked roads with demonstrations, they also disrupted
deliveries to the central fruit and vegetable market in Tel
Aviv -- the main source of Mizrahi's livelihood.

"It is not easy for people to be uprooted from their homes
and livelihoods, but they crossed the line," said Mizrahi.

Israelis are preparing for a hot summer of trouble as
settler supporters vow nationwide disruption in an attempt to
derail Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to give up all the
Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank.

Polls show most Israelis back the pullout due to start in
mid-August, the first from occupied land that Palestinians want
for a state.

But after running out of parliamentary avenues for
preventing the withdrawal, opponents are looking for any means
to disrupt or delay it in the hope of buying more time to
squash the initiative.


"We have always preached non-violent civil disobedience,"
said rightist politician Arieh Eldad, at the forefront of the
opposition movement.

"We will try to stop traffic on highways, the railways and
maybe even at airports and seaports ... We do not speak about
sabotage but purely interrupting normal activity in the

But there are fears that a small core of radical opponents
could aim to escalate the campaign by disrupting power lines --
some attempts have already been made.

In another measure to create chaos, ultranationalists have
planted fake bombs in railway stations.

"The sky is the limit in terms of what could be done. The
middle of August is so hot and people are nervous. They could
cause huge problems in Israel if power supplies are hit," said
one senior police officer.

Palestinian suicide bombings during an uprising since 2000
have killed hundreds of Israelis and caused frequent
disruption. Israel has also been gripped by occasionally
paralyzing industrial action.

But disputes have never had the same capacity to pit
Israelis against Israelis on the streets.

Most Israelis back Sharon's aim of uprooting the 8,500
settlers in Gaza to "disengage" from conflict with the
Palestinians -- while keeping much bigger West Bank settlements
that are home to 230,000.

Many settlers, though, see all the land occupied since the
1967 war as a biblical birthright and say giving it up would
"reward Palestinian terror."


"There is a potential for vigilante responses on the part
of the general public whose lives will get disrupted," said
Israeli analyst Mark Heller.

"There is the potential for people fighting each other in
the streets. But we are a long way from civil war."

Some Israelis angry at being caught in recent protests
harangued the protesters and in a few cases tried to assault
them. As the protests appeared to be creating more animosity
toward settlers, their mainstream leaders urged restraint.

The most determined, however, say they are undeterred.

"For many years those people have been educated that we are
already in the footsteps of the messianic process. The
evacuation symbolizes the start of a reversal of that process,"
said Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan university.

Market analysts expect a short-term impact from the
tensions. The shekel has weakened to 13-month lows against the
dollar recently because of jitters among investors who shifted
money into other currencies.

"The markets have got used to Arab-Israeli violence. Jewish
violence is something they are not used to yet," said Doron
Weissbrod, senior economist with Bank Hapoalim.

Still, the long-term market impact of the pullout is
generally expected to be positive.

It should mean some reduction in defense spending and
strengthen Israel's diplomatic position. Even if it does not
lead to peace with the Palestinians, it may allow Israel to
pull back from one of the main battle fronts.

"We have been through so much turmoil before and we will
get through this. There is no choice," said Mizrahi, who was
injured in the 1973 Middle East war.