'All this land is the Holy Land. Everyone knows it belongs to Israel'
ISRAEL: Israeli settlers against the Gaza pullout believe God is on their side.
"In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates."
Book of Genesis 15:18
This verse is one of several Old Testament pronouncements upon which Israel's fundamentalist settlers today stake their exclusive claim to the promised land of their ancestors.
In his various covenants with Abraham, Moses and Joshua, the Lord bequeathed to the tribes of Israel a swathe of land that takes in modern-day Israel, parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and most of Syria.
Religious Zionism's visionary geographical concept of Erez Israel, the land of Israel, also includes Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the modern-day West Bank and Gaza Strip, also known as the occupied Palestinian territories.
In 1936, the man who was to become the founder of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, told the authorities in what was then British-mandate Palestine that "the Bible is our mandate".
For Israel's small numbers of religious Jews who rallied for three days in the searing heat this week to oppose next month's planned evacuation of all 8,000 Jewish settlers from Israeli- occupied Gaza, their unblinking confidence in this mandate inspires and fortifies them.
Why else would hundreds of decent and responsible parents choose to push their young children in buggies over the parched dusty fields of the Negev in darkness to camp in sweltering conditions in an isolated community compound?
The potent mix of ancient Judaism and modern nationalism kept the minds of thousands of demonstrators uncluttered by any moral qualms about the aspirations of some three million Palestinians for statehood, or the fact that Israel's settlements on land conquered in the 1967 Six Day War is viewed as illegal under international law.
"I don't see the settlements illegal or immoral," said Yael Shlosberg, a West Bank settler who camped this week at the Kfar Maimon agricultural community with her husband and three of her six children.
"We came to our country, to our land . . . Of course we have to observe the human rights of the Palestinians but not the national rights, because in this tiny little patch of land between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea it is impossible to have two countries."
Since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, successive governments in this predominantly secular state have explicitly or tacitly encouraged the settlement enterprise with the aim of breaking the contiguity of Palestinian areas, thereby preventing the establishment of a viable future Palestinian state.
To quote Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, when he was foreign minister in 1998: "Let everyone get a move on and take some hilltops! Whatever we take will be ours, and whatever we don't take will not be ours!"
The settlers travel on networks of well-maintained roads built exclusively for them. Many are armed and all are protected by Israeli soldiers. Today there are some 240,000 settlers in the West Bank, and about 190,000 in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
Some of the massive settlements in the Jerusalem area, like Maale Adumim and Modi'in Illit, are in fact large towns inhabited by predominantly secular Israelis who may not even classify themselves as settlers at all.
Others like Hebron, Bet El, Kiryat Arba and Netzarim in the Gaza Strip have attracted religious messianic Jewish families who are deeply ideologically motivated.
Rabbi Boaz Lerner (53) attended this week's demonstrations dressed in black and clutching the Torah to his chest beneath his flowing beard.
A Hasidic rabbi from the southern Israeli town of Kyriat Malachi, he was an Israeli Phantom jet pilot during the 1973 Yom Kippur war when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel.
"All the nations believe in the Bible and all this land is the Holy Land," he said. "Everybody knows it belongs to Israel. The only problem is that some Israelis have an inferiority complex . . . that they are willing not to protect their citizens because they are worried about how the rest of the world sees them." By last Thursday night, after three days of standoff, the Kfar Maimon protest petered out after the settlers' Yesha Council backed down from its confrontation with some 20,000 troops and police.