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Young Israelis at the forefront of battle over withdrawal

GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip—Visit any of the scruffy tent cities and closed-for-the-summer yeshivas where ultra-nationalist Israeli youth are sleeping in fields and empty classrooms and it's glaringly apparent: The fight against the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip is also largely a children's crusade.

The crusade began in earnest late Sunday night as about 500 youths took control of the two-lane road leading to the gates of Neve Dekalim, the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza.

The youths, who appeared to range in age from about 10 to 20, vandalized four military vehicles, flattening tires, smashing windows and spray-painting slogans on them. One of the jeeps carried booklets of settlement maps that troops were to use during the evacuation; the youths tore the maps to shreds and set bonfires with them.

The authorities didn't immediately respond.

Young protestors have hitchhiked here by the thousands from all over Israel. Religious girls in long skirts, modest long-sleeved tee shirts and sport sandals. Orthodox boys with sidelocks, knitted yarmulkes and ritual fringes hanging below their shirttails, which are never tucked in.

They tote bulging backpacks festooned with orange ribbons—the signature color of the anti-disengagement movement. Their major encampments are in the settlements of Neve Dekalim, Shirat Hayam, Morag and Kfar Darom. They appear unfamiliar with their new surroundings, but they quickly get acclimated.

As pilgrims on an underground railroad sustained by like-minded youth inside Gaza's main settlement bloc, they've found creative ways to sneak into the 20 square miles of Gush Katif, which has been a closed military zone for more than a month.

They use the national identity cards of valid residents, smuggled to the hitchhikers outside the settlement bloc, to help them bypass the checkpoints. Organizers try for a close facial match between the person trying to sneak in and the photo on the valid ID card.

Some have hidden in the false bottoms of car trunks and truck beds to enter the area, which has only one main road.

Inside the settlements, teams of sympathizers are breaking into the houses of settlers who've chosen to leave voluntarily. The organizers stash the newcomers inside.

Many are motivated by religious Zionism and a sense that history is being made here.

"If we don't stop this now, Judaism is lost," said Natan Florsheim, 15, a student from the West Bank.

Others seem as if they've come on summer vacation to participate in "Gushstock."

When the forced pullout begins with the influx of more than 50,000 troops Wednesday, they'll disrupt the evacuation any way they can.

"We need to do things to make the government pay a higher price," said Florsheim, who expects he'll try to flatten the tires of police and army vehicles.

While he's prepared to engage in vandalism, Florsheim said, he wouldn't fight the troops physically.

Many settlement leaders have called for a prohibition on outright violence.

But a "plan of action" circulated Sunday by supporters of these young activists called on them to "create havoc" through "disorder, delay and tiring out the eviction forces."

It instructed them to cut the fences between settlement communities in order to swarm toward the confrontation points where evictions will take place.

Other memos posted outside synagogues and public buildings in the largest settlement, Neve Dekalim, called for protesters to chain themselves together. It explained how, after they're arrested, they can rock side to side in unison to flip the military buses that will be deployed to cart them away.

"If we succeed to perpetuate the struggle for two to three days, a similar struggle will take place throughout the whole country, and the King above will have the tool ... to nullify the (withdrawal) decree," the right-wing National Home Movement said in the action plan distributed on Sunday.

College students traditionally have spearheaded activist movements in other parts of the world, but these demonstrators are mostly younger because in Israel nearly all 18-to-22-year-olds are in the army.

Rabbi Benny Lau of Jerusalem, a prominent figure in the Orthodox-Zionist community, said that while religious students are overwhelmingly opposed to the pullout, they aren't radical or violent.

He worries, however, that because of their youth and excitability, they could be susceptible to extremists without thinking through the consequences of their actions.

"They live in the present without considering what the relationship of religious Zionism with the state and the rest of Israeli society will be after this crisis has played out," he recently told the Jerusalem Report.

Outside a synagogue service for Tisha B'av, the most mournful day of the Jewish calendar, which laments the destruction of the biblical temples and ended at sundown Sunday night, Shmuel Levy, 17, said this year's observance was particularly painful.

"Always on this day for 2,000 years bad things have happened to our people. And even now, this evacuation.

"But this is worse," he said, "because it is Jews putting out Jews."

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

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