JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of orange-clad activists lined the country's major highways on Monday in a nationwide protest against Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, disrupting traffic, shouting anti-pullout slogans and drawing noisy honks of support from sympathetic motorists.
With tensions running high as the withdrawal nears, Israel has descended into an emotional color war. Jewish settlers and their supporters have embraced orange. On the blue side are peace activists and other backers of the withdrawal. Each side's weapon of choice: ribbons — tied to cars, backpacks and even wedding bouquets.
Emily Amrusi, a spokeswoman for the settlers, said they adopted orange in imitation of the pro-democracy struggle in Ukraine. Settlers accuse Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of using non-democratic methods to push his plan through parliament. Orange is also the color used to label agricultural products grown by Jewish farmers in Gaza.
The pro-pullout activists chose blue and white because they are the colors of the Israeli flag, said Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service now among the blue team's top brass. "You don't have to explain anything. Blue and white says it all," he said.
Those symbols were on vivid display Monday. Protesters wore orange T-shirts, held orange placards and sold orange ice cream. Many young men tied orange ribbons around their heads, Rambo-style.
Beyond the colors, of course, lies a much deeper struggle over Israel's future.
Video: Israeli newsman turns camera on occupation "We're in a struggle for our homeland. We can't give up," said Tova Ettinger, a Jerusalem resident who demonstrated with four of her 12 children.
The planned pullout from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements would mark the first time Israel has withdrawn from territories occupied in the 1967 Mideast War and claimed by the Palestinians for a future independent state. The operation is scheduled to begin in mid-August.
Sharon believes that exiting Gaza, where 8,500 settlers live in tightly guarded enclaves surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians, will boost security by ensuring the country's Jewish majority and consolidating control over other parts of the West Bank.
Opponents fear the pullout is only the first step in a larger territorial handover to the Palestinians. They accuse Sharon of rewarding terrorism and betraying their religious beliefs.
"Jews were given possession of the land of Israel by God and it belongs to us. Only God has the right to give it away," said Yiscah Schechter, 45, who moved to Jerusalem 16 years ago from Miami.
Monday's demonstration was organized by the main settlers' council, and most of the protesters were Orthodox Jews.
‘Jews don't expel Jews’
At the entrance to Jerusalem, hundreds of activists lined the highway, holding placards that said "stop to rethink things" and chanting, "Jews don't expel Jews." Dozens of cars parked on roadsides to support the protest.
Many protesters expressed hope that the government would reverse its decision on the withdrawal — something Sharon has ruled out.
Israeli security officials fear resistance to the withdrawal could turn violent. In a taste of what may lie ahead, dozens of young activists scuffled with Israeli troops sent to demolish abandoned buildings near a Gaza settlement Sunday.
Monday's protest was peaceful. Unlike previous demonstrations, the activists did not block traffic and refrained from burning tires. But traffic backed up in many areas as vehicles slowed to honk their horns in support of demonstrators. Orange ribbons dangled on mirrors and antennas of many vehicles.
Israel already is awash in ribbons, and with activists handing out blue and orange streamers at bus stations and intersections each day, the phenomenon seems to be growing.
Nayot Pachenik, a 23-year-old native of the Gush Katif bloc of settlements, tied an orange ribbon to her bouquet and wore orange shoes at her wedding this month. She posed for one wedding picture with an orange ribbon around her neck.
"It was my way of expressing my commitment to the cause and allowed me to have some influence," said Pachenik, who now wears an orange ribbon tied to her headscarf.
Peace activists think twice today before slipping on an orange shirt, and security guards at Israel's parliament recently confiscated the orange scarves of a visiting delegation of lawmakers from India.
An unofficial count of car ribbons shows orange has the upper hand for the moment — pullout opponents have been handing out ribbons longer than supporters have.
Cheap way to show support
Rafi Sari, head of the orange ribbon brigade, said opponents have distributed 2 million ribbons. At a few cents a ribbon, it is an inexpensive way to spread the message, he said.
"A ribbon can be tied on anything a car, a neck, a bag, anywhere. It's practical," he said.
But the blues have begun to fight back. Ayalon, the former Shin Bet head, even took to the streets last Friday to hand out ribbons.
Opinion polls support the ribbon count, showing backing for disengagement has dropped from a high of nearly 70 percent to just around 50 percent. Opposition has risen from 27 percent to 38 percent.
For Roni Ratzon, it's all very profitable. The owner of a textile cutting factory in Jaffa, he doesn't discriminate. He has hired three more employees and extended working hours to 24 hours a day so he can cut up to 100,000 orange and blue ribbons daily.
"I have no political opinion. I am not a political person. I just want to make money," Ratzon said.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.