What Broke Me Was the Theft of Land'

He grew up as a settler in Gush Katif, made friends with his Arab neighbors, and thinks the land of Israel makes people crazy. He and his wife also have decided not to accept compensation from the government.

He is 32, married and a new father, a settler until recently at Shirat Hayam in the Gaza Strip. Most of his life - as a boy in the Bnei Akiva movement, as a student at a hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study and military service), and as a student at Bar-Ilan University - Yigal (real name withheld) spent in Gush Katif. In recent years, he has been working in education. My first telephone conversation with him was conducted more than two years ago, with the mediation of MK Zahava Gal-On, the chair of the Meretz faction in the Knesset. My most recent conversation was held yesterday, when he phoned from the yard of his parents' home in Neveh Dekalim.

Once he reported on a synagogue that was built illegally, and another time he talked about meetings with the defense minister's aide for settlement with the tacit understanding that the Israel Defense Forces' authorities would not block them from trampling the Palestinians' fields. Several months before the disengagement plan let the genie of Jewish fanaticism out of the bottle, Yigal talked with disgust about rabbis of the Gush who poison young souls with the hatred of Arabs. Last month, he was prompted to call by the sight of the Jewish invaders who took over a cluster of abandoned houses in the sands of Shirat Hayam that once had served the Egyptian army.

Yigal's information has always been wonderfully precise. Sometimes he has accompanied it with internal documents. The defense minister's office usually would promise to instruct the IDF to act, and the IDF would send us to the police. Yigal usually reported that the world of the Jewish settlers was going its own merry way. Ever since the siege of Kfar Maimon, he has been phoning nearly every day. He is worried by the scandalous ease with which the masses are crossing the roadblocks. The fear of a violent clash gives him no rest. At the end of the week, he came to help his parents pack their possessions.

Sadness about the separation is not evident in his voice, only anxiety - anxiety about the soldiers' well-being, anxiety about the fate of religious Zionism.

In our last phone conversation, Yigal spoke about what had motivated him to seek salvation among elements that are considered haters of Israel in the environment where he grew up. "My father served in the police in the area and got friendly with the neighbors. Our house was open to our brothers the Ishmaelites. I met them at family weddings and at bar mitzvah celebrations, sitting beside council heads and ordinary Jews. I saw that it is possible to make peace with them. I used to ride my bike in the streets of Khan Yunis.

The Arab fishermen on the beach always looked to me like equal human beings. As far as I am concerned, the Gush people who talk about `death to the Arabs' are no different from the Hamasniks. What broke me was the theft of land between Neveh Dekalim and Shirat Hayam. I saw a fellow, someone who looked like a perfectly normal citizen to me expelling a group of Arabs from the Muasi from their vegetable patch. He had guys from the Torat Hahaim Yeshiva with him, who are no less extreme than the ones from the Joseph's Tomb Yeshiva. I tried to speak to him, and I came up against a brick wall. I was in shock. I realized that these people were enlisting the ideology in order to get control of lands," he says.

"I phoned Zahava Gal-On, and I assumed that the army would get there quickly. In the meantime, I stopped a military jeep and asked an officer with the rank of colonel who was sitting in it how it was possible to find out to whom the land belongs. He explained that under the Oslo agreement, from the civilian point of view, the land belongs to the Palestinians. That is, the land is theirs. I asked him how, if that was the case, is it possible that they are not clearing out the Jewish invaders. He said that he had orders from on high, and I asked whether a colonel wasn't high enough. The officer replied that there are those who are higher. This theft goes on all the time. This is how they set up the greenhouses across from the gate to Neveh Dekalim and the extremists' yeshiva. They expanded, and the friction with the Muasi people deepened."

I will pray for the soldiers' well-being

"Two months after [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon announced the disengagement plan, shortly after my child was born, I decided that mortars and children don't go together," Yigal continues. "My wife comes from a Yizhar and Tapuah family (two radical West Bank settlements), but I convinced her that it is impossible to live in a situation like this, and we moved into Israel. My parents were also complaining all the time that it was hard for them with the mortars.

They don't sleep on the second floor and they hardly go outside, but they stayed through the force of inertia. It isn't simple to abandon a community where you've lived for so many years. Today they, too, are leaving. We are entitled to NIS 200,000 to NIS 300,000, but we didn't even register with the Disengagement Administration. We did not feel that we are entitled. From the age of three to the age of 30 we licked honey. We lived in a rented house with a view of the sea, and we paid maybe one-tenth of the rent and property tax for a similar house in Herzliya. There are those who didn't even pay that pittance and also got electricity and water for free. We made a decision not to accept compensation."

There is a huge racket in the background, and Yigal stops for a moment. He relates that hundreds of teenage boys and girls are passing him on the way to the settlement's entrance gate, blocking the settlement from the army and police. "All of them are people who have come from the outside in recent days.

I've met soldiers who said that the rabbis ordered them, instead of refusing to obey an order, to turn a blind eye to people who want to join the disengagement opponents. How does this work? Very simple. A vehicle comes with eight people in it. The driver hands the soldier two identity cards that belong to residents of Neveh Dekalim. The soldier winks, `You're two in the car, right? Go in peace.'

"On Thursday night, I took a friend in my car who didn't have an entry permit. At the first roadblock, at Re'im, the soldier shined a light into the car and made like he didn't see him. We got to Sa'ad at 2:00 A.M. The soldier examined our documents, and said that my friend had to get out of the car. Half a minute later, another soldier came along and told the policewoman to let us go through. At the new Kissufim roadblock, they asked us whether he had a permit. We said he didn't but that he was with us, so the soldier said, `Okay, go.'

At the fourth roadblock, the last one, all the soldiers said was `Good evening, see you.' Those soldiers have been brainwashed. You look a soldier in the eye, and he looks at you and his look says, `Instead of going to jail for refusal, I'm letting them go in.'

"The land of Israel makes people crazy," Yigal sums up. "Look at what they've come to. When Rabbi Eliyahu, one of the greatest rabbinical rulers, prohibits the blocking of roads, and this doesn't accord with their ideology, students of the Sages dare to say that he has a screw loose. After Rabbi Aviner forbade disobeying an order, there was discussion at a serious rabbinical conclave of a proposal to excommunicate him. Under the umbrella of `the Land of Israel,' they have no problem assembling boys and girls together and cursing soldiers, male and female.

"In my home there's no television, but I am afraid that my son will be a strange bird in the society where I live. He will not grow up on `Death to Arabs' or `the prime minister, may his name be erased,' and he will not get near people from whose midst a man gets up and shoots passengers on a bus. I will pray at a synagogue where they say a blessing for the welfare of the state and the welfare of IDF soldiers, even the ones who evacuate the house where I grew up."

Were there any uprooted Arabs?

Vice Premier Shimon Peres was demonstratively absent from the Galil 2005 conference held two months ago in Karmiel. This was the way he chose to protest the fact that the conference did not include a single Arab speaker. In a new report prepared by the Sikui association, which works toward achieving equality between Arab and Jewish Israeli citizens, co-director Shuli Dichter wrote in response to Peres' protest that "the problem is not that Arabs were not included as speakers at the conference, but rather that they are not included in the development of the Galilee." Dichter noted that during his visit to Washington last spring, Peres supported using part of the money of the American grant for the disengagement to develop the Negev and Galilee. The sum designated to develop those two areas is about $250 million and constitutes about one-third of the American grant money.

One quarter of the Arab citizens, about a quarter of a million people, are the first or second generation of the uprooting. However, the Sikui association's report warns that the plans for developing the Negev and the Galilee include only new Jewish settlers and existing Jewish settlements. The Disengagement Compensation Law, which is supposed to arrange the evacuation of the settlements in the Gaza Strip, grants a monetary incentive of NIS 90,000 to a Jewish family that chooses to move to the Negev or Galilee. The government's decision of June 19 offers discounts of up to 40 percent to Jews who purchase rights on lands in the Galilee.

The report notes that the Or Commission had discussed in its conclusions that discrimination against Arab citizens compared to Jews is at the basis of the reasons for the October 2000 riots, during which police shot and killed 13 demonstrators. The commission's firm conclusion was that "the stain of discrimination must be eradicated" from the face of the State of Israel. In 2003, the "Arab" sector, nearly 20 percent of the country's population, received 1.4 percent of the allotment from the Industry and Trade Ministry's Investment Center. The latest poverty report shows, however, that in one area, unfortunately, the Arabs maintain first place.

And what about Peres, who boycotts ceremonies in the Galilee because of the under-representation of Arabs? He has been invited, this time with a number of Arab representatives, to a conference that Sikui will hold at the beginning of next month at the Rahat community center in the Negev, under the heading "The Day After the Disengagement - Shared and Equal Citizenship." Peres has not yet replied to the invitation.