Israel's Color War

Taking sides on the Gaza withdrawal


During a recent visit to Jerusalem, Indian M.P. Vijay Jolly brought orange and green scarves, a traditional symbol of bravery and prosperity, to drape around Israeli officials as a gesture of respect. But when he tried to enter the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament building, guards stopped him, explaining that the scarves could be construed as a political protest.

"I did not insist and left the scarves at the reception," a bemused Jolly told The Jerusalem Post. The Knesset later apologized for the incident, attributing it to overzealous guards determined to prevent disruptions by protesters opposed to Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, scheduled for next month.

Jolly had inadvertently stepped into the color war over the disengagement plan, which anyone walking or driving the streets of Jerusalem is periodically asked to join by people waving orange or blue (or blue and white) ribbons. During my first dinner with relatives in Jerusalem, my nieces explained that orange stands for opposition to the plan, while blue stands for support.

Orange is the municipal color of Gush Katif, the main bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza. By a happy coincidence, it was also the color of Ukraine's pro-democracy movement. By an unhappy coincidence, it is the color of the Israeli Arab Balad Party, which understandably resents the appropriation of its trademark for a cause it vehemently opposes.

Blue and white are Israel's national colors, the blue symbolizing peace. One of my nieces, who studied the iconography of color at Hebrew University, notes that blue also happens to be at the opposite side of the spectrum from orange.

My sister, who lives in Gush Etzion on the West Bank and recently participated in a protest against the disengagement, gave my kids orange rubber bracelets bearing the slogan "A Jew Does Not Expel a Jew," also seen on bumper stickers and signs throughout Jerusalem. She says some opponents of the withdrawal display orange together with blue to show they favor national unity.

At the Western Wall, where old men and women hoping for a few coins used to tie pieces of red string to your wrist as a Kabbalistic talisman against evil, children and teenagers now hand out orange or blue ribbons to be tied around your wrist or the antenna of your car. The upshot is that rejecting a slip of nylon or accepting a ride from a friend is fraught with political meaning.

I am still looking for the ribbon that represents the message I want to send: Enough with the ribbons already.

Polls show a large majority of Israelis support the disengagement plan. But orange predominates on the street, presumably because the opponents are more strongly motivated.

It's not hard to understand their grievance. Jewish settlers have lived in Gaza for decades. They have built comfortable homes, thriving businesses, and vibrant communities. And now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who used to promote settlement in Gaza as vital to Israeli security, wants to uproot them and move them to mobile homes in the Negev or apartments in Ashdod.

At the same time, it's easy to see why most Israelis are weary of defending an island of Jews in a sea of Palestinians, consuming military resources and putting soldiers' lives at risk. The 7,500 or so Jews in Gaza are outnumbered by more than 170 to 1, and they represent only 0.1 percent of Israel's total population. Their position seems untenable, whether or not the unilateral withdrawal improves the prospects for broader peace.

On the latter question, it's hard to be optimistic. I suspect former cabinet minister Natan Sharansky is right that real peace won't be possible until democracy and the rule of law take hold in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I hope he is wrong that the withdrawal will encourage terrorism by making it seem as if Israel is on the run.

Meanwhile, the diehards of Gush Katif, the ones who intend to stay until they are forced to move, continue to construct buildings and plant crops, using money donated by benefactors who seem to be counting on divine intervention to stave off the evacuation. The settler movement is planning a three-day march on Gush Katif beginning on July 18, predicting that 70,000 protesters—a huge number in a country with a population under 7 million—will participate.

That projection may turn out to be no more realistic than the expectations of Gush Katif farmers who are growing vegetables they plan to harvest in August.