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Behind the Headlines: Gaza Jews Are Anxious About the Future but Show No Signs of Leaving, for Now

What will happen to the Jews of the Gaza Strip now that Palestinian self-rule has been implemented here and in the West Bank town of Jericho?

While Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat have agreed to postpone the “settler question” for two years, the settlers themselves are in a state of limbo.

Outwardly, they appear brash and defiant — gun-toting cowboys who malign the government in demonstrations throughout the country.

Privately, sitting around their kitchen tables, they allow their brave front to disappear. Their words alternate between anger and fear as they grapple with a peace agreement that could lead to eviction from their homes within a few years.

The first Jewish settlement in Gaza was established in 1946 by a group of young Holocaust survivors. It lasted two years, until the Egyptian army attacked it repeatedly in 1948. It was re-established in 1970 by Nahal, a branch of the Israeli army that combines agricultural work with combat duty.

Today, between 5,000 and 6,000 Jews live in 17 settlements in the Strip, most of them in the southern area known as Gush Katif. About 70 percent of the settlers are religious.

All of the settlements in the region were established with the blessing — and financial support — of previous governments, both Labor and Likud. And, as the settlers are fond of pointing out, then-Prime Minister Rabin attended the 1976 groundbreaking ceremony of Netzar Hazani, an agricultural settlement in the Strip.

Rivka Saffer, a schoolteacher who has lived in the settlement of Neveh Dekalim for nearly 11 years, believes the peace accord will endanger not only her family but the entire country.

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While handing out after-school snacks to her five children, Saffer, 29, asserted, “Some people in Israel don’t realize where we live. They think Gaza is in the middle of nowhere. They don’t realize that it’s a 10-15-minute drive from Ashkelon,” located in Israel proper.

“Obviously, we are afraid for our own future,” she said unequivocally, “but we are also afraid for the State of Israel. Why are we in Gaza? Because Israel was attacked in 1967 and we won. I don’t see any reason to trust (the Palestinians). I don’t see any reason to give back the areas.”

Saffer said, “People are living here because Rabin sent us. If you take families and put them somewhere, the least you can do is have the decency to take care of them. Rabin hasn’t even come here to talk to us.”

“We don’t know what’s going on. The government hasn’t told us anything, about security on the roads or the future of the settlements,” she added.

Although she concedes that the roads in Gaza have never been safe, especially since the start of the intifada six years ago, Saffer thinks that the peace accord will make things even worse.

“My husband works outside Neveh Dekalim and drives to work,” she said. “I’m very worried about his safety on the roads. If a terrorist commits an attack on the road and then flees into an Arab village, the army won’t be allowed to run after him.”

While she is equally concerned about security, Roberta Bienenfeld, another Neveh Dekalim resident, does not fault government intentions of trying to make peace with the Palestinians.

A resident of Gush Katif since 1981, Bienen-feld said, “I’m not happy with the accord, but I understand that Rabin and Peres really believe that they are doing what is right for the State of Israel.”

But she believes that “their desire to rid themselves of Gaza has clouded their judgment. They don’t see where the process is going. They don’t seem to realize that they are laying the foundations of a Palestinian state. This will hurt the State of Israel.”

Since the signing of the agreement in September, Bienenfeld said she has purchased and learned how to use a pistol. Several other residents have done the same.

Datya Herskovitz, the spokeswoman for the Gaza Coast Regional Council, said that there has been a significant increase in terror since the signing of the declaration of principles last fall.

“There have been a lot more shooting incidents, a lot more stonings. As the army moves from the center of Gaza, the problem of terror increases,” she said.

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Asked what precautions the settlers are taking, now that the army is redeploying and the first Palestinian police have entered Gaza, Hers-kovitz said, “Nobody knows what precautions to take. We don’t even know what to do if we meet (a Palestinian policeman) in the street. You could say there is a lot of confusion.”

Still, no Jewish families have left Gaza. “People are under stress,” said Herskovitz, “and it’s only natural that they should think about the future, but no one has announced any intentions to leave. In fact, 15 French families moved here last month, and several more families are on their way.”

Despite the uncertainty, life goes on in Gaza. Farmers continue to cultivate tomatoes and flowers, and the factories are still running. The children go to school and ride their bikes along the quiet, tree-lined streets of their settlements.

And tourists still flock to the Palm Beach Hotel, a 114-room hotel in Gush Katif. Though midweek tourism has declined substantially since the Hebron massacre in late February, when Arab worshipers were killed by a Jewish settler, the beach-front resort is always full on weekends.

Eitan Ben-David, the hotel’s owner, said that his guests are indeed worried about terrorism. “Every Shabbat I lead a walking tour around parts of Gush Katif. Before starting, I tell the guests, ‘I know you were concerned that coming here might be dangerous, and that your neighbors told you not to come,’ ” he said.

“By the end of the weekend they leave refreshed and assured that this isn’t a dangerous place,” he added.

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