Some 125 American visitors were sitting down to lunch in the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim Sunday when they heard the sounds of explosions. They later learned that a rocket attack had killed three workers at a nearby greenhouse in Ganei Tal. Five others, all non-Israelis, were wounded. Another attack, almost simultaneously, damaged a home in nearby Sderot, just outside Gaza, causing no injuries.
"It’s a completely different kind of emotional experience to be nearby when something like this happens," said Jeff Reznik of Brooklyn, in a call from Neve Dekalim Tuesday. "It bonds you with Israel in a way that hearing about it on the news never does."
After visiting the damaged home in Sderot, with a gaping hole in its concrete roof, Rev. James Vineyard, an Evangelical minister from Oklahoma, said it reminded him of his service in the Vietnam war, and reinforced his sense that the idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace was "nonsensical."
The American visitors, mostly Jews with a contingent of ministers and a Brooklyn state senator, see the continuing hazards in Gaza as proof that handing over territory to the Palestinians while a declared cease-fire is violated is a mistake on the part of Ariel Sharon’s government. "People are seeing that if you run away from terror, it runs after you," said Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who organized the visit, in a phone interview.
State Sen. John Sampson, who says he had no opinion on the disengagement prior to the visit, said in the same phone call that he had come to view the matter as a "civil rights" issue.
"It has been an eye-opening experience," said Sampson, who is a candidate for Brooklyn district attorney. "It showed me the fortitude and spiritual uplifting of the people here in Gush Katif. For families who have lived here for 23 years to be uprooted, it’s not fair."
Hikind left for Israel on Sunday evening, shortly after appearing at a Central Park concert in solidarity with the Gaza settlers following the Salute to Israel parade.
"The Jews who live in Gush Katif, those are the heroes of the Jewish people," Hikind told a crowd that was smaller than organizers had hoped.
Two police officers estimated about 1,000 in attendance, while event organizer Joseph Frager estimated the crowd at 10,000. Frager had said he hoped for 25,000, but added "this was the liveliest crowd we’ve ever had." Some of the political rhetoric reached heated levels as speakers like Rachel Sapperstein, a resident of Gush Katif, labeled Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres the "enemy" and called the pullout plan "evil."
Oshrat Meirovitch, 20, of Kiryat Arba on the West Bank, said people often think Gush Katif is only a desolate bunch of huts or a handful of houses, and few understand it is a thriving area full of life. Events like Sunday’s concert, she said, will hopefully help change that perception. "I just hope that people around us understand the mistake they are going to do," said Meirovitch, who spent the afternoon with an orange bucket soliciting donations for Gush Katif.
Many of the concertgoers, like Leon Lauterbach of Yonkers, said they didn’t see themselves as protesters, but rather as supporters of Israel. Lauterbach called the turnout "lousy," but said he didn’t think it was a sign of fading momentum.
"I personally don’t think the disengagement will take place," said Lauterbach, 78. "A determined minority can always beat a complacent majority, unless they use force."
Families, teens, seniors, men with black hats or no hats all made their way to the park’s East Meadow, where the orange-clad crowd rallied around speakers and Jewish rock bands. Knesset member Effie Eitam declared what he termed the expulsion of Jews by Jews as against halacha and an affront to President George W. Bush’s war on terror."
Mr. President, read my lips, there will be no disengagement," Eitam said, firing up the crowd. "The only place Jews cannot live wherever they want is in the state of Arik Sharon."
The concert was dedicated to the families of Gush Katif, whose citrus groves inspired the color used by disengagement protesters. As afternoon sunbathers scattered, the park slowly filled with a second parade of orange T-shirts, hats, signs, banners, posters, balloons, and fliers.
In the pit in front of the stage, sun-drenched teens danced in circles, kicking up dust arm in arm. Around the stage, bystanders leaned on signs lamenting disengagement as a win for terrorists. Others handed out fliers for a future rally in Washington. "It’s wonderful to see the crowd, all the Jews to stand with us and give us strength," said Ezra Haidu, lead singer of Maarava Mikan, a band from Gush Katif.
"It’s inevitable that Gush Katif would happen," said Batya Virag, 25, of Manhattan. "There are people, even at this concert, who have made it their agenda. But whether they’re out there saying, ‘Yes, Gush Katif’ or ‘No, Gush Katif,’ they are supporting Israel, and that’s an umbrella over everything."
Along the route of the parade, orange shirts supporting the Jews of Gaza and declaring "Jews Don’t Expel Other Jews" were plentiful, but there was no sign of organized protest.
Some 200 marchers from the Zionist Organization of America, however, sported orange shirts reading "All Of Israel Is Our Home," a subtle protest against the disengagement. Sources said the marchers complied with concerns by the Israel Tribute Committee that the words Gush Katif not appear in order to preserve the parade’s overall theme of non-political solidarity.
The president of the Tribute Committee, Judy Kaufthal, said she had seen the shirts before the parade. "We knew that was what they ordered," she said. "There was no problem."
Jeremy G. Burton is an editorial intern. Adam Dickter is a staff writer.