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Latest Mideast crisis pits orange against blue

JERUSALEM—Church bells resonate through the Old City just across the valley.

Muslims sense the end of their day of rest. Jews step through the distinctive golden glow of sunset toward their own Sabbath.

This Friday evening, a thin veil of serenity shrouds Jerusalem and seemingly all of Israel. Come next week, this will not be so.

The time has arrived for what Israeli President Moshe Katsav calls "the most fateful decisions" since Israel's Declaration of Independence, the forced removal from the Gaza Strip of Jewish Israelis by Jewish Israelis.

The process will begin Monday and escalate throughout the month. It's known by the sterile term "disengagement," and it is that and more. The nation is fractured, polarized as never before, colorized into an orange camp and a blue camp.

Orange streamers, flags and ribbons mark the vehicles and sometimes the clothing of Israeli opponents of disengagement. Blue marks those who believe it's time for Jewish residents to leave, for the mutual provocations to end, at least in Gaza.

The latest opinion polls show Israelis split nearly evenly, but orange seems to outnumber blue, by far, on the street.

On Friday, platoons of orange-clad backpackers were still evading Israeli military lines and hitchhiking into Jewish areas of Gaza. A sweeping resistance campaign by opponents of the pullout, called "Orange Dawn," is scheduled to begin Monday.

All that's left to unite both sides, pro and con, is this: Neither harbors even a glimmer of hope anymore that Israelis and Palestinians can live in close, natural proximity to each other.

"They don't want us here and that's the end of that," my Israeli friend, Nissim Zaken, said of the Palestinians. "And nobody wants to harm them. They can live their lives.

"There is just no choice, my friend. We should be separated. We tried it without separation, and it just didn't work."

In truth, there always was a degree of separation. But now, the walls must grow higher than ever.

I served here as Knight Ridder's Mideast correspondent from late 1983 until December 1985. I returned to help cover the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising), the Scud attacks during the Gulf War, the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the wave of suicide bombings in 2002, and now this, disengagement.

The Knight Ridder team also includes Mideast correspondent Dion Nissenbaum, Mideast bureau manager Cliff Churgin and Nathaniel Hoffman of the company's Contra Costa Times in California.

Nissenbaum, Hoffman and I spent much of Friday at our new auxiliary bureau, in a kibbutz on the edge of the Gaza Strip. It felt just like home: We waited and waited for the cable TV guy, who finally showed up and then left with the cable still not working.

From this rural place, and from inside the Gaza Strip, much of our work will be done these next few weeks of summer.

Remember the old Allan Sherman song, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" (Here I am at Camp Grenada)? Though this is deadly serious stuff, a spoof comes to mind:

"Hello mother, hello Fatah,

"Here I am in camp near Gaza."

Israelis confronted the physical and psychological horrors of terrorism and perpetual insecurity long before most others. And though spirited debate is a national sport here, this struggle to survive always united Israelis.

Now, the nation is in crisis again, but it's different.

This crisis is internal, and I don't believe that I've ever seen Israel and its American supporters suffer this kind of torment.

The withdrawal from Gaza is unilateral, orchestrated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, long one of the most hawkish leaders in the nation's history. It is, he says, the only way now.

And so thousands of Israeli soldiers and police officers will confront thousands of Jewish civilians in 21 "settlements" in Gaza and four on the West Bank.

But these aren't mere settlements, these are villages and small cities, places with real houses and gardens and shops and schools and synagogues, places where—right or wrong—people built their lives.

Many residents have left already or have signaled that they'll leave with only token opposition. But others are digging in. There will be physical confrontations next week and during the rest of the process, which could take as long as a month.

And yet, and yet.

For the most part, life goes on in Israel, and in some ways it's improved since my last tour of duty here in 2002.

Terror attacks are rare, at least for now, so tourists have returned in large numbers. They glide, wide-eyed and laughing, through Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, all mimes and musicians, falafel and ice cream.

Israeli families visit restaurants again, and parents and children walk hand-in-hand into movie theaters.

But always they're scanned and searched by security guards. Cafes, shops, office buildings. Nearly everywhere.

If, for some reason, you enjoy the airport check-in process, you'll love Israel. It's as if the entire country has been turned over to the Transportation Security Administration.

This too shall pass; this fracture over disengagement will be bridged. Israel will gather itself and confront the next challenge, as it has the last challenge and the one before that. And the one before that.

I asked Nissim if he was an orange or a blue. I think he's mostly orange, but he laughed, and he referred to the Israeli flag.

"Let's just say that I'm blue and white," he said. "Blue and white. This is the best. I'm Israeli."

———

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

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

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