NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip — The forced evacuation of the Gaza settlements on Wednesday is a significant chapter in the history of Israel.
Martin Fletcher, NBC News Tel Aviv bureau chief and lead correspondent, discusses the dramatic removal of the settlers and how it reflects the true divide in Israel between those who believe in the rule of law of the democratically elected Israeli state, and those who believe in the law of God.
What is the mood among the settlers this morning? Is it resignation?
No, it’s the opposite. It’s total determination to stay, while at the same time knowing that they won’t be able to stay. It’s a very mixed reaction.
On the one hand, the settlers' whole lives are so totally shattered that it is quite heart-wrenching to see. Children are crying as they are dragged onto the bus. But, for the most part, they’ve been going fairly peacefully. So, it’s a mixed reaction.
There are also a lot of tears in the eyes of soldiers. Even an army commander who I spoke to said that he sometime had tears in his eyes watching all this.
The army is stressing that these settlers are families and that these people are not the enemy. So, the army is trying to be as gentle as possible and trying to avoid any provocations or confrontations. So, things are going according to plan, that’s what they say.
I think that what one needs to bear in mind is a point that seems to get lost a bit. Most people look at the settlers as having these nice homes and just wanting to stay on this land to continue preventing the Palestinians from occupying it.
But, for the settlers, the key issue, and the reason that they are so emotional about being thrown out, is because they believe that God gave them the land. Not only did God give them the land, but he also demands that they stay on the land.
According to the Jewish Holy Torah, the Jewish bible, they are not allowed to leave the land and they are not allowed to give it to any strangers. Not only that, but they believe that the Jews will be punished by God if they surrender this land to strangers.
So, that’s why we’ve seen these scenes today of Jews kissing the ground and crying, and looking up to heaven beseeching their lord for forgiveness.
These very emotional moments are mixed at the same time with the knowledge that in the end, they are going to go.
So, once they have gone through the agony of the parting, if you will, the vast majority of the settlers, in the end, have simply walked under escort to the buses where they will be taken back into Israel, to find new homes.
How do the settlers who are prepared to leave peacefully feel about the outsiders who have come in to prevent their forced evacuation?
Many of the settlers who wanted to leave in the last couple of days were prevented by these outsiders from leaving. The protesters blocked the roads to stop the army from coming in, but also to stop other settlers from leaving.
So, the residents of the settlements, who are a completely different kind of person from these radical young people coming in, totally resent the interference from these young extremists.
Last night for instance, these young extremists began starting a fire in the streets. The people whose houses where on the side of the street were shouting at them “Don’t do that. We don’t want you here. Just go away and leave us alone, we don’t need you here. Go back to where you came from.”
Then the residents came and they put the fire out. So, it was a quite interesting interaction between the settlers and the extremists.
Almost all of the violence that we’ve seen here has been from the extremists. There hasn’t been that much violence, but there has been enough of it, punching and that sort of stuff.
But, the screaming, the shouting, and cursing, that’s from everyone. All the settlers have been screaming and shouting at the army and the soldiers basically saying things like, “How could Jews do this to Jews,” and “You’re animals, you’re not worthy to wear the uniform.”
Of course many of the residents being expelled by the army have themselves been soldiers in the army, since service in the army is compulsory in Israel.
There was a scene where one woman was screaming, “Don’t do this to me, don’t touch me. I’m an officer in the army. I teach my soldiers to disobey illegal orders and this is an illegal order and you shouldn’t carry it out and you should leave us alone.”
This female soldier finished her tirade by saying, “I won’t leave my house. You’ll have to break my arms and legs to make me to leave my house.”
But, then when it came time to leave a couple of hours later and the soldiers came, they went in quietly. They knocked on the door and they discussed the situation. In the end she came out quietly and she got on the bus quietly just like everybody else.
So, in other words, they are going through this terrible emotional upheaval, but at the same time nobody really wants violence. They just want to get their anger off of their chests.
How are the soldiers dealing with the difficulty of forcing the evacuation of their own people? Men, women, and children?
Their response to all of these screams is mostly the same thing. They say, “We are carrying out the law.”
They stand quietly, or look away. Or they look at the people screaming and shouting and they just listen. They just take it.
It must be very hard for the soldiers. As I said before, many of them have tears in their eyes or they look quite stunned or shocked — even the top SWAT teams or police and elite army units here.
The whole nation is in shock as you can see the division and the trauma here among the soldiers and the settlers.
Many of the protesters are young teenagers; how is it that they have become so passionate in their opposition to the pullout? Does it reflect some sort of generational divide?
It’s not a generational divide because all settlers are just as passionate from one generation to another. It’s just that many of these young people have come from the small, radical West Bank settlements where they believe it’s God’s law to settle his land.
They believe that no democratically elected government has the right to overthrow the law that God gave the Jews.
So, really this is all about the confrontation between what the settlers believe is God’s law versus the law of the state of Israel.
As far as they are concerned, it no contest — God’s law wins every time.
That’s really what it’s all about — the conflict between God’s war and the law of the state of Israel.
These young radicals are like anti-globalization protesters or any other protesters all over the world; they are extremely violent and aggressive.
These youngsters who are living by themselves in these small settlements — playing the guitar, singing songs, half of them are probably smoking dope, praying, and they are violent. They are very hostile and aggressive toward the press, threatening us all the time.
The imagery of the forced evacuation is so dramatic and strong, even the architect of the disengagement, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said he has been moved to tears by it. Will those images present a roadblock in the future? Will they further inspire extremists who are completely opposed to the formation of a Palestinian state in the future?
There is a very specific reason why the settlers are creating these kinds of images and protesting so bitterly, apart from the fact that this is a genuine expression of their feelings — which of course, it is.
But, also, they know very well that they’ve lost Gaza. What they are really fighting over now is the West Bank and Jerusalem. They want to show that the harder it is to evict them from here, the harder it will be to evict Jews from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
After all, there are only 9,000 Jews in Gaza, if it is this tough and emotional to evict them, image what it would be like to evict 240,000 Jews from the West Bank settlements, let alone the Jewish suburbs — another quarter of a million.
So, that’s what they are doing. They are trying to make it impossible for anyone to image that this could be repeated on a scale 20 or 30 times larger.
It’s a political thing, as well as a personal expression.
What has the Palestinian reaction been to the disengagement? How have they helped ease the process?
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, of course it’s a great victory for them. It’s just a start, but they have been rather impressed.
I saw an interview with Mohammad Dahlen today and he said basically, hats off to Ariel Sharon. At least he is a man who carries out his word and you can believe what he says. He started the settlements and now he is finishing the settlements in Gaza. So, that was the official Palestinian reaction from Dahlen.
That does indicate that in the future, the Palestinians will believe that if Sharon wants to continue progress with the evacuation, he’s the man to do it.
How have the Palestinians helped ease the process?
So far they have helped. The great fear of the Israelis was that the Palestinian militant groups would follow the Israelis with gunfire and rockets to make it look like the Israelis were running away.
Also with the big concentration of troops and people here suddenly, a lot of people could be hurt by those rockets. If that had happened, Israel said they probably would have invaded Gaza to stop more rockets. In fact, Israel has an invasion force standing by right now, to go into Gaza if necessary.
The fact that the Palestinian leadership promised calm, and so far has been the case, that is a major contribution by Palestinians to the smooth function of this process which so far has been very smooth indeed.
Martin Fletcher is the NBC News Tel Aviv Bureau Chief and lead correspondent.