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Off to the South. Parts 1 & 2
Ready for the 3 day trek
by Judy Lash Balint
Jerusalem Post, Cafe Oleh
July 18, 2005


How are you getting there? How are you getting back? Are you taking your kids/letting your kids go? Is there any point in going? How will the police and border police react to us? Are you staying for all three days?

These are questions my friends and I have been asking each other for the past few days as we weigh up how to peacefully express opposition to the Gaza retreat plan and offer support to the thousands of Jews in Gush Katif who are about to be kicked out of their homes.

I'm off in a few hours to drive down with a group of fellow travelers to test the limits of Israel's democracy. Already, the authorities have declared day 2 and 3 of the march as illegal, since they refuse to give permits for the assembly. We're the wimps--we're going to the legal part that's due to start late this afternoon with a mass prayer gathering at the tomb of the Baba Sali in the southern town of Netivot. Our thinking is that the media and political forces will be counting heads there and it's important to have as strong a showing as possible to start the thing off. We'll try to drive back tonight and then go back down on Wednesday as the group moves toward Kissufim, the entryway into Gush Katif.

Organizers have repeatedly exhorted participants not to engage in any kind of verbal or physical violence with IDF, police or border police, but a favorite tactic of our Shin Bet secret police is to place provocateurs inside the ranks of the right wing organizations who then initiate the most extreme acts that are then blamed on those groups.

Many commentators keep on referring to the fact that Gaza retreat protestors are breaking the law by engaging in demonstrations without permits, or that Gush Katif residents who refuse to show ID cards in order to get to their homes are acting against the law and "that's going too far," as Judy Nir Mozes said on her popular talk show last week. Well, for those of us raised in western democracies, we can only reflect on the fact that it was also against the law once upon a time in the great US of A for African Americans to sit at the front of a bus or eat at a whites-only diner. It was also against the law for Jewish activists in the former Soviet Union to teach Hebrew or to gather to demonstrate for the right to emigrate. Would anyone suggest today that those activists should NOT have broken the law for their principles?

Tonight we'll see whether Israel can tolerate mass opposition to government policy (wouldn't it have been easier if we could just have had a referendum??)

Meantime, the Kassam rockets and mortars keep on falling --not just in Gush Katif, but over the past few days dozens have slammed into Sderot and the kibbutzim inside the Green Line. Offers to host hundreds of Sderot kids whose summer activities have been cancelled pour in from all over the country. Beersheva will provide transportation and facilities for Sderot kids to join day camps there and a few private companies are sponsoring Fun Days for Sderot kids at various parks and attractions.

And the adults? They're just trying to stay calm as they become the new frontline of the latest episode in Israel's seemingly endless border war.

Every February, tens of thousands converge on Netivot to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the revered rabbinic scholar known as the Baba Sali, a Moroccan sage who died in 1984. For the other 364 days a year, Netivot is a sleepy southern development town.

Yesterday, when the Yesha Council used Netivot as a staging ground for what was billed as the biggest anti-Gaza retreat protest yet, the people of Netivot didn't know what had hit them. As hundreds of private vehicles adorned with orange ribbons crawled into town one by one through the sole traffic light off the highway, the children of Netivot ran out to beg for the ribbons. Old ladies leaned over their balconies to watch the excitement below, and shopkeepers sent salespeople into the crowd with coolers full of cold drinks and ice cream.

Suffice it to say that Israel's democracy took a beating yesterday as the police acted Soviet style by issuing an order declaring the mass demonstration illegal and then taking the next step by sending officers to bus stops all over the country to physically prevent people headed for Netivot from getting onto buses. Bus drivers were taken in for questioning to explain their participation in "an illegal act."

Despite all that, tens of thousands of those committed to exercising their right to voice their opinion about the Gaza retreat did manage to make their way down to Netivot by whatever means possible. Many organized car pools in their neighborhoods; others stood at highway junctions to hitch rides and some even set out on foot. Some 200 people from the northern town of Kiryat Shmona walked 10km before succeeding to persuade bus drivers to take them as far as Netanya.

I'd made the decision to take a few friends down in my car and since we left early before the buses had been scheduled to depart, we had no difficulty making it into Netivot. Pulling up at a parking place in front of a house on Jabotinsky Street just in front of the Baba Sali's compound, we encountered the lady of the house, who came out to ask what all the people were doing there in Netivot when it was nowhere near February!

If the goal of the event had been to show widespread opposition to Sharon's plan, it failed miserably. Not because of the numbers of participants--everyone knew that if the hundreds of buses scheduled would have arrived, the crowd would have swelled to nearly 100,00. No, the problem wasn't the numbers but the composition of the crowd and the program laid on by the Yesha Council.

The hysterical tone of the young M.C who opened the event, and the interminable speeches by a long line of rabbis, combined with a lengthy prayer service all led to a feeling that this was a religious revival.

I counted maybe 10 secular people present among the thousands standing around under the broiling sun. There were barely any women not decked out in the religious long skirt uniform, nor hardly a single man without a kippa. For many watching and/or taking part in the event, it just served to reinforce the (erroneous) notion that the only people who care about what's happening to Gush Katif and the northern Shomron are observant Jews. But which secular person who flys an orange ribbon on his car antenna in Jerusalem (and there are many, many such people) would shlep down to Netivot to stand for hours at a religious rally? Would they come to a show of political strength outside the Knesset in anticipation of Wednesday's vote to postpone the disengagement--maybe...but as far as I know, no such thing is scheduled.

The Yesha Council has evidently given up on the battle to persuade non-religious Israelis that the security implications of the withdrawal will affect us all. Indeed, the most recent polls show that 50 percent of Israelis approve of Sharon's plan, 30 percent oppose it and (as Israel's southern communities come under an escalating barrage of Palestinian missiles) a growing 19 percent are undecided.

I'm just off to a briefing from a couple of psychologists who are supposed to tell us about the psychological impact of the Gaza retreat plan. Without stepping foot through the door of the conference center, I can already definitively say that the whole disengagement thing isn't doing much for our collective sanity.