Gaza Withdrawal Sheds Light on Jewish Divisions

On Tel Aviv's (search) hip Shenkin Street (search), with its sushi cafes and gelato shops, people speak of evacuated Jewish settlers with ambivalence, and no one mourns the loss of the Gaza Strip (search).

On a nearby boardwalk, though, orthodox Jewish residents say Israel has just made a mistake of historic proportions.

Israelis say the traumatic Gaza withdrawal has deepened the divide between right and left and between the religious and secular, but that the relative peacefulness of the withdrawal also shows a fundamental sense of solidarity.

The withdrawal from Gaza is "a message of divisiveness, a Jew does not expel a Jew," said political scientist Gideon Doron, referring to a common refrain used by pullout opponents. But the images of soldiers hugging settlers and crying with them "is also a message of compassion and determination to be together."

The Gaza withdrawal is stirring intense soul searching among Israelis about their collective future. Many are looking at the heavy price Israel has paid — in both money and lives — by maintaining Jewish settlers in Gaza.

Before the withdrawal, some 8,500 Jewish settlers lived in the Gaza Strip amid 1.3 million mostly poverty-stricken Palestinians. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), long the patron of Jewish settlers, finally concluded that keeping Gaza was no longer tenable.

Israel spent billions of dollars in building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza after Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war. The current pullout represents the first time Israel is giving up territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.

In Tel Aviv, where secular and religious inhabit different neighborhoods and rarely interact, the Gaza pullout is causing great debate.

On Shenkin Street, Meir Solomon walked past cafes and stores selling herbal soaps and talked of his disdain for the settlers. He said they "have gone too far" in their fight against the government's decision to quit Gaza.

The withdrawal from Gaza "is a good thing. It shows that the people in Israel are beginning to understand that you have to give something, maybe even in advance, to get a little peace."

But just a brief walk away, residents spoke disparagingly of Sharon, calling the pullout a betrayal of God's will.

Yosi Levy, once a staunch supporter of Sharon, said he was in shock after seeing Israeli soldiers force settlers out of Gaza.

"It's forbidden to do this. It is against religious law," he said. "If you believe that we are here for a reason, you can't start giving the land back."

Nearby, David Zohar, an Hasidic Jew with a long black beard and sidecurls, pushed his infant's baby carriage past a line of shops on a main street. The blue baby carriage was decorated with orange ribbons, signifying opposition to the withdrawal.

"People are very sad and they don't know how a government of Israel can expel Jews," he said. "It breaks the heart."

Pollster Rafi Smith said the numbers of Israelis in favor and opposed to the withdrawal — 54 percent to 38 percent — have remained stable for six months and he expects no movement in his first post-withdrawal poll later this week.

"The withdrawal is bringing these divisions into focus" but not changing opinions, said Smith, the head of the Smith Research Company.

He said polls show about 80 percent of the country's religious population opposes the withdrawal while roughly the same percentage of people who identify themselves as secular — about half the country — are in favor. About 20 percent of Israel calls itself religious; another 30 percent are somewhere in between.

With the withdrawal almost over, most Israelis agree that the next step is up to the Palestinians, who they say must rein in militants.

The future "depends on the other side," said resident Moshe Rashevsky. "If they continue to be extreme and continue to bombard us, we will have no choice and we may have to go back in to Gaza."