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Confrontation looming between Israeli troops, young Jewish activists

SHIRAT HAYAM, Gaza Strip—They've come by bus and on foot. They've hidden in stuffy car trunks and skirt Israeli checkpoints by moonlight. Day and night, young activists are filtering into this closed military zone and setting up camp in the Gaza Strip with plans to put their bodies on the line to block Israel from closing the Jewish settlements.

In the past six months, as many as 2,000 sympathizers have arrived as reinforcements for the 8,500 settlers who are faced with ejection from their homes by Israeli soldiers next month. While many longtime Gaza Strip residents have accepted government compensation and are leaving without much of a struggle, younger activists are gearing up for a fight.

"They'll have to carry me away," 16-year-old Yehuda Matar said while standing near a new tent city rising on a Mediterranean beach separated from a Palestinian village by concrete barriers, razor wire and security towers. "I have my principles, and I'm going to fight for them."

The influx of ardent, idealistic demonstrators ready to face off against young Israeli troops could create a volatile flash point and a public-relations nightmare for Israel when it moves ahead with plans to shut down and level all 21 settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes the move will improve his nation's security and reduce tensions with Palestinians.

Although Sharon's initiative has held on to narrow support from most Israelis, a recent poll of the nation's teenagers found that 55 percent oppose it. To the young believers, their nation's plan to abandon the area is not only a misguided attempt to appease terrorists, it's also a betrayal of what they see as a God-given right of Jews to live in the disputed territory crowded with more than 1.3 million Palestinians.

"These outsiders could be more problematic," Israel Defense Forces Capt. Yael Hartman said. "There are troublemakers, but we know where the troublemakers are."

While longtime settlers who are organizing protests so far have sought to head off violent clashes, some of the younger activists have taken a more confrontational stand by rushing police lines and dodging checkpoints to get into the Gaza Strip.

"Each man will do what he thinks is appropriate," said Yehuda, who plans to do no more than peacefully resist when the time comes. "But I think it's very possible there will be violence."

In an effort to choke off the flow of activists, Israel declared the Gaza Strip a closed military zone earlier this month and moved in to roust about 150 demonstrators who were creating a bunker at an abandoned beachfront hotel. But many Israelis who are determined to stop the settlement shutdown have found it easy to evade the restrictions.

Some have come as invited guests of Gaza Strip settlers and simply overstayed their guest passes. Others have folded themselves inside car trunks, caught shuttles with settlers or walked dirt paths that run right by heavily fortified Israeli checkpoints.

"It's easy to get in," said an 18-year-old activist who gave his name only as Meshar. "It just depends on the soldiers."

That may be about to change. On Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces tightened security yet again by barring anyone but Gaza Strip settlers and their immediate families from coming and going.

But the new controls came too late to stop teens such as Meshar, who's part of a growing group of young Israelis arriving with backpacks and sleeping bags at as many as five tent cities popping up around the Gaza Strip settlements. With the aid of locals who're providing everything from food and water to wood and tarps, the new arrivals are laying concrete foundations for temporary homes, erecting communal kitchens and renovating abandoned beachfront cottages.

At one tent city within view of a huge Palestinian refugee camp, a group of teenage boys sitting at picnic tables under a large black shade structure refused to talk and shooed reporters away.

Nearby, at Shirat Hayam—named for the song that fleeing Jews sang after crossing the Red Sea, parted by God in the Bible—activists live in rustic shacks made of two-by-fours and tarps. A pickup piled with sacks of potatoes took its goods to a makeshift kitchen with a half-dozen hot plates and a dented refrigerator set on a wood pallet in the sand.

A few yards down the dirt road, settler supporters unloaded coils of plastic pipe to finish renovating a long-abandoned Egyptian beachfront cottage. On the opposite side of the row of cottages, a small group of activists took a break in the afternoon heat from laying concrete foundations for a new tent city, one meant to separate girls from boys after concerns arose that the youngsters were staying up past midnight to socialize.

Each day, more activists arrive, throw down their backpacks and start working. Military officials said they were stopping hundreds of people from getting through each day, but organizers in Israel are preparing to launch a new wave of protests and try to help dozens of supporters get into the Gaza Strip before the military begins closing the settlements the third week of August.

While the outsiders preparing to take on the government were in high spirits, some of the people who live in the cramped houses on the beach were more subdued.

Avinadav Vitkon and his wife, Rachel, were among the first settlers to take over this abandoned outpost four years ago after a notorious school-bus terrorist attack. While the couple and their two young children have no plans to pack up, they have few illusions that the demonstrators outside their doors can stop the shutdown.

"I'm thinking about D-Day," the 26-year-old writer and religion student said as his 2-year-old daughter scurried about his feet. "Now it's so real. It's so close."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-PROTEST

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