The battle over the future of the Gaza Strip has come to Los Angeles.
Two prominent settlers and an outspoken Israeli politician worked their way through Southern California last week, spreading the message that Israel should remain for good in the disputed territories. And Jewish settlers, they said, need the help of American Jews in resisting the settlers' forced removal by the Israeli government.
The three stopped in Los Angeles as part of a nationwide trek, which also has a goal of raising $1.8 million for their cause.
"We are fulfilling God's mission," Moshe Saperstein, a Yom Kippur War hero who lost an arm in combat, told a lunchtime crowd of 16 at Pat's Restaurant on April 6. "We're supposed to be there."
Besides Saperstein, who lives in Gaza, the delegation consisted of Dror Vanunu, director of the Katif Region Development Fund, and Yuli Edelstein, deputy speaker of the Knesset. The three spoke in front of Orthodox congregations, Jewish day school students and individually to affluent Jews. Their message: There is time to prevent a colossal mistake that will embolden terrorists, diminish Israel's security and violate God's plan for the nation of Israel.
For them, making a stand in Gaza is akin to making a stand in the West Bank and even in Tel Aviv. As goes Gaza, so goes Israel, they believe.
"I see this as the first domino," said Knesset member Edelstein at the kosher restaurant. He lives in the West Bank region of Gush Etzion, which could be a future withdrawal target if settlers are forced out of the Gush Katif region of Gaza. Gush Katif comprises 21 Jewish settlements.
"I'm here with the Gush Katif people so I don't have to be here in a year defending my own home," Edelstein said.
Members of the Gaza contingent did not immediately disclose the total of collected donations from the five-day Southland swing. But for most American Jews, the visitors' argument is a tough sell, largely because many Israelis aren't buying it either.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who leads the Likud Party, put the pending Gaza pullout in motion. He's previously derailed attempts to stop or postpone his planned withdrawal, which close to 70 percent of Israelis favor. Israel's left wing also backs Sharon on his Gaza strategy.
Locally, a majority of Jews support Sharon's plans, said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. That's because of a desire to jump-start the peace process, as well as the high cost of protecting 9,000 settlers who are surrounded by more than 1 million Palestinians, he said.
"Now's the time for American Jews and Jews in Los Angeles to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Israel, who overwhelmingly support [the withdrawal]," Sokatch said.
A starkly different view prevailed at Pat's, where the three Israelis made short presentations before rapt listeners.
Above the din of clanging dishes and muffled voices, Saperstein passed around pictures of himself holding a rocket that landed in his backyard. The rocket bore the Arabic name for Jerusalem, Al Quds.
Over the past 4 1/2 years, he said, nearly 6,000 such weapons have fallen in the Jewish settlements, taking but a single life. He said he hoped God's miracles would continue to protect him and his Gaza neighbors.
Vanunu, the development fund director, said the Gaza settlers needed money for a variety of pressing needs, such as college scholarships and services for the elderly and handicapped. Most important, he said, funds are needed to send Israeli children in Gaza to camp in the Galilee for three to four days in June, when confrontations between the settlers and the Israeli government could intensify.
"We need your help," said Vanunu, adding that he had no intention of leaving Gaza and planned to move his family into a new home right after Pesach.
The delegation's words struck a chord. At the completion of the Israelis' presentation, many in attendance pulled out checkbooks and made hefty donations.
"We are so blessed to live in such peace that I want my brothers on the front lines to feel our love and support," said Yaron Hassid, an L.A. attorney and real estate broker who wrote a check for more than $1,000, after hearing the threesome speak.
The settlers' view also is supported by Rabbi David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. Turning over Jewish land to implacably hostile Arabs does nothing to advance peace and only rewards terrorism, Eliezrie said in a telephone interview. Eliezrie added that his recent trip to Gaza reinforced his opposition to withdrawal, a position he has shared in sermons at Congregation Beit Meir HaCohen, an Orthodox shul.
"As long as the aspiration of the Palestinians is the destruction of Israel, as long as they educate their children in kindergarten to be suicide bombers, there's no hope for compromise," he said.
Lyle Weisman, an Encino investor and developer who helped arrange the delegation's trip, said geopolitical considerations only partially explain the passionate feelings behind opposition to the Gaza evacuation. Holy texts make clear God's desire for the Jews to remain in Gaza, he added .
Weisman, an Orthodox Jew who attended the fundraiser at Pat's, said The Book of Prophets Samuel, for instance, illustrates the folly in showing kindness to an enemy, such as the Palestinians. He's donated more than $1 million to Chabad and other Jewish charities. "The answer for peace is strength," he said.
Weisman cited the philosophy of the late Lubavitcher leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn. "It's what the rebbe called for: peace-for-peace; not land-for-peace. You can't appease an enemy."
The debate in Los Angeles can seem abstract and distant, but as the clock winds down on the Gaza settlers, feelings on both sides are likely to intensify, with the growing potential for Israeli-on-Israeli violence. Prime Minister Sharon recently expressed concern about a potential civil war over his disengagement plan.
The visitors from Israel gave no indication that they intend to give up what they consider their lawful -- even God-given -- homes. And believing in their cause is a number of local Jews, especially, but not exclusively, Orthodox Jews.
Jews have a history of beating the odds, said Mara Kochba, a consultant for nonprofits who helped set up meetings for the delegation.
"Jews have spent thousands of years not giving up," she said.
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