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The Fresh New Face of Israeli Defiance

Right-wing youths are seen as heroes -- or pawns -- for protesting Sharon's pullout plan.

June 28, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The detainee was the very picture of defiance.

She scrawled slogans on the walls of her cell. She mocked her interrogators by chanting loudly whenever they tried to question her, or by reviling them as traitors and stooges. She even refused to reveal her name.

Her jailers reported, however, that she also sometimes got homesick and cried. Which wasn't particularly surprising, given that she was only 12 years old.

In recent months, Israeli teenagers and preteens have become the shock troops of a nationwide campaign of protests against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip this summer, Israel's first such ceding of settlements in war-seized territory the Palestinians want for their future state.

Hundreds of youngsters have been arrested for offenses such as blocking highways, daubing antigovernment graffiti on walls and scuffling with police and soldiers. They usually spend no more than a night or two behind bars, if that, but some have been incarcerated for weeks at a time.

The emergence of these young rebels with a right-wing cause has set off fierce debate among Israelis, encompassing questions of parental responsibility, freedom of expression, the proper use of judicial authority and the potential for what has so far been rowdy civil disobedience to boil over into real violence.

Opponents of the Gaza withdrawal tend to hold the teen lawbreakers up as heroes, likening them to the ranks of defiant young Jews who risked and, in some cases, lost their lives in Israel's fight for statehood more than half a century ago.

Others, however, see impressionable youngsters being cynically used by adults in order to promote their own political agenda -- an uneasy reminder, for some, of Palestinian youngsters being exploited by militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the last four years of fighting.

Over the months, Israeli authorities have developed a profile of what they consider to be the hard core of the young protesters, some of whom are already veterans of a dozen or more arrests.

Many are the children of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who fear the Gaza withdrawal would leave their communities vulnerable to uprooting as well.

Most are from religiously observant homes, with little or no contact with the secular world. And many strive to outdo even their settler parents in the zeal of their belief that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the Jewish people's biblical birthright.

Significant numbers of these youngsters are followers of extremist right-wing figures like the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, assassinated in 1990, who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza. Many have engaged in brawls with Israeli troops trying to evacuate illegal hilltop settlement outposts scattered throughout the West Bank, an experience that has already helped inculcate in them an abiding disrespect for the Jewish state and its symbols of authority, including the army, the courts and the government.

'Extremely Savvy'

"There's no question that these kids are very motivated, very dedicated, and very focused," said Gil Kleiman, a spokesman for the Israeli national police. "They're young, but they're extremely organized and extremely savvy about their rights."

Theirs is a network at once loosely knit and tightly connected. The young activists use right-wing chat rooms, word of mouth and cellphone text messages to plan and coordinate protests, some of which have fizzled but some of which have been impossible to ignore.

On May 16, in what was described by organizers as a test run, anti-pullout protesters simultaneously blocked dozens of highways and roadways all over Israel, snarling evening rush-hour traffic for hours and tying up thousands of police in the process.

Organizers bragged that the mass action proved they could effectively paralyze the country two months from now if authorities move ahead with the plan to evacuate the 21 Jewish settlements of Gaza and four smaller ones in the northern West Bank.

Authorities acknowledged the blockages were disruptive, but insisted they amounted to little more than a nuisance. "I am telling you, the [withdrawal] will be carried out even if every single road is blocked, even if the entire country is shut down for two weeks," the prime minister told reporters this month. "It won't change a thing."

But Sharon's camp has been rattled by a recent slippage in public support for the pullout plan, which has emboldened the protesters. Polls last week for the first time showed respondents' backing for the Gaza withdrawal dipping to 50%, down from previous highs of about two-thirds.

Girls Compare Bruises

Out on the streets, the youngsters boldly defy police and soldiers. Particularly nettlesome to the authorities are groups of teenage girls, clad in ground-skimming skirts, who deliberately tussle with burly officers in body armor at demonstrations on roadways or outside the homes of government officials.

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