By Joshua Mitnick | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
TEL AVIV -- In a last-ditch effort to stop the Israeli government from withdrawing from Gaza and portions of the West Bank later this month, tens of thousands of Jewish settlers gathered Tuesday, vowing to march toward the Gush Katif settlement enclave, and setting up a showdown with police.
But even as the battle escalates over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's landmark pullout from territories claimed by Palestinians as part of a future state, some settlers are already worrying about the evacuation's impact on a movement that has promoted the steady expansion of Jewish settlements for three decades.
For these religious Zionists who fanned out across the West Bank and Gaza, fancying themselves as model Israeli patriots, the calamity of the approaching withdrawal is provoking a soul- searching over whether they neglected reaching out to the country's mainstream while reclaiming what they considered a biblical birthright.
"We thought it was an Israeli national project and it really wasn't,'' says Rabbi Shlomo Bick, an instructor at the Har Etzion religious seminary in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut. "There was sort of a disengagement - a mental disengagement and a social disengagement - with the majority of the people in the country.''
Many of the 220,000 Jewish settlers who built new communi- ties in the territories conquered during the 1967 Middle East war live in remote towns seldom visited by the average Israeli. The settlements are often homogeneously Orthodox in religious observance and staunchly right-wing in political outlook.
The gulf could widen amid the disillusionment over the evacuation, leaving Israel's religious Zionists even more closed off and, in some cases, more radical.
"When you find that your basic goal - building the country - isn't being shared, there's a real crisis of faith,'' said Bick. "The potential exists to throw up your hands, and say let's retreat into our community, and wait 50 years for the Messiah to come.''
The segmentation has been highlighted throughout the protest campaign against the pullout. Though public opinion surveys suggest one-third of Israelis are opposed to Mr. Sharon's plan, the overwhelming majority of protesters hail from settlements in Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, or are religiously observant Jews from inside Israel.
In the decades before Israel's establishment in 1948, religious Zionists initially bridged the gap between the secular Jewish nationalists who advocated settlement in Palestine and a rabbinic establishment that viewed two millenniums of exile from the holy land as a divine punishment.
Following the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yizhak Hacohen Kook, first chief rabbi of Palestine, who died in 1935, religious Zionists argued that establishing a Jewish state would be taking a step closer to the Messianic age.
When Israel won control of the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War of 1967, religious Zionists interpreted it as proof of their theology. Moving out to the hilltops of ancient Judea and Samaria, they saw themselves as the heirs of the socialist Zionist pioneers who established farming collectives - or kibbutzim - to settle the biblical land of Israel and mold the borders of a future state.
"What people in our place could have resisted the temptation to reclaim its ancestral heartland?'' says Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank. "Religious Zionism is an essential backbone of Israeli society. I can't envision Israel without religious Zionism because of its idealism, its purity, and its self-sacrifice.''
That dedication was evident Tuesday as tens of thousands of settler faithful gathered for the second time in three weeks in southern Israel. Jewish settler leaders vowed to march into the settlements Wednesday, which have been declared a closed military zone and are off limits to nonresidents.
Settlers hope their efforts will sabotage the withdrawal. Authorities said 15,000 police and soldiers would deploy in southern Israel, forming human chains and erecting roadblocks throughout the area to prevent protesters from reaching Gaza.
For Itshak Ben David, a student at Har Etzion seminary, the standoff across a locked fence between Israeli security forces and the demonstrators underlined a political shortcoming of religious Zionism.
"The fences in Kfar Maimon symbolized the rift," he says. "The big misfortune of this community is that it didn't succeed in breaking out. [Gaza] might be a battle that we've lost, but there are more missions. The big challenge is to break through and continue the settlement project.''
In a country where the religious-secular divide overlaps with the debate over the fate of the West Bank and Gaza, the rift between settlers and mainstream Israelis is as much about faith as it is about politics.
"The religious public has a commitment that is above us," says Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the Gush Etzion regional council in the West Bank and a protest leader. "Keeping the Sabbath isn't something for us to question. It's the same thing with the country,'' he explains. "We didn't do enough to reach out and convince our public why we do what we do.''
But Mr. Halevi warns that the settlers' stock-taking will be incomplete if it is limited to the tactics of the antidisengagement campaign. Religious Zionists must ask why they ignored the dilemma of perpetuating Israeli control over their Palestinian neighbors.
"The settlement movement and the religious Zionists need to look at the moral failures ... of the way the Arab population was treated as invisible,'' he said. "Why did you lose Jews that believe as passionately as you do that we have a right to that land? It's not about losing the extreme left. It's about losing the center.''
AP material was used in this report.