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Israelis anguish over pain of withdrawal, but most support it

TEL AVIV, Israel—Thursday was a lovely day at Banana Beach.

Jewish troops were battling Jewish civilians in a synagogue 60 miles to the south, but it was a lovely day at Banana Beach in Tel Aviv, and plenty of Israelis enjoyed it.

Yet even here, on the smooth sand and under the cheerfully colored umbrellas beside the blue Mediterranean, the anguish was palpable.

There are as many opinions about the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as there are Israelis, and the atmosphere Thursday in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv differed sharply from that in the devout capital of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements that ring it.

But across the geographic, political and religious spectrum, among those who support the withdrawal from Gaza and those who don't, it never took long for an Israeli to utter the word "pain."

"This is a freer city than Jerusalem, a less religious city, more liberal," Pinchas Kalandaro, 64, of Tel Aviv, said as he sipped mineral water at a Banana Beach cafe. "But everyone here takes what is happening in Gaza in his heart.

"You see the pain of the people who are leaving their homes after 30 years and you see it in their faces and it gives you the same pain."

Very few people said they expected to feel appreciably safer after Israel withdraws from the overwhelmingly Palestinian territory, but many said they thought their soldiers would be safer.

In Israel, where nearly everyone serves in the military at some point, that's almost the same thing. Military duty in Gaza was considered particularly dangerous.

"I was always worried about my children," Kalandaro said. "Now I can sleep at night. I'm glad my grandchildren won't serve there."

That sentiment was shared by two women who met for coffee at the Azrieli Center, a glass-enclosed, three-level, American-style shopping mall jammed with parents and children getting ready for the start of school Sept. 1. History teacher Bella Shemesh of Tel Aviv and Ricky Kaufman, from a town near Haifa, both have sons in the army.

"I think it is better for us," Shemesh said. "But I cried when I saw the soldiers having to do what they did this week. It was very painful."

Kaufman agreed that the end of Gaza duty for soldiers will be a blessing. But she, too, "cried when I saw all the people leaving their homes, the pain those people were in."

A public opinion poll released Thursday night found that 59 percent of Israelis back the government's full withdrawal from Gaza, though with widespread regret over the turmoil that the 8,500 Israelis in the 21 settlements experienced.

Nearly an equal amount—58 percent of the respondents—said they felt "close" to the settlers, according to the survey of 500 people conducted for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. The paper didn't say what the survey's margin of error was.

Miri Eisin, a longtime Israeli army intelligence officer who lives in Tel Aviv, noted a dichotomy between the secular Israelis she called the "silent majority" and a "vocal minority" made up mostly of Orthodox Jewish settlers who oppose the withdrawal.

"Most people are looking at it as the right thing to do," Eisin said. "They're sad, but there's no doubt in their minds that this is the right thing to do."

A mother, Eisin said she was angered by the images of young children traumatized by the experience. But she blamed the parents, not the government.

"They knew this was going to happen for the last six months, and they could have chosen another alternative," she said.

Most Israeli television and radio stations provided wall-to-wall coverage throughout the week, especially of Thursday's confrontations in Kfar Darom and Neve Dekalim.

But that didn't mean that everyone was glued to TVs or radios. Forty-two percent of those whom Yedioth Ahronoth surveyed said the media provided too much coverage of the withdrawal. Forty-five percent approved of the amount of coverage; only 7 percent thought there was too little.

Sitting in Azrieli Center's food court, Tzach Shefi, 27, a computer network specialist, said he hadn't followed the developments closely; he was too tired to do so when he got home from work. Told that Tel Aviv was very different from Jerusalem, a somber, tense city largely colored in orange, the symbol that anti-withdrawal activists had adopted, he was indignant.

"Don't they have jobs to do? Do they have work?" he asked.

In Jerusalem, Eliav Cohen, 19, stood in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall wrapped in an Israeli flag and handed anti-withdrawal circulars to scores of people.

In Gaza, it was nearly over. In Tel Aviv, it was mostly just another day. In Jerusalem, many things are eternal.

"I feel people care more in Jerusalem," Cohen said. "There are a lot of Arabs around, so they know the reality. I want to go to Tel Aviv, so people can see who I am. I am a Jewish settler and we are trying to save our land."


(Merzer reports for The Miami Herald. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article.)


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

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