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In Gaza, Settlers Defiant After Sharon Talks of Uprooting Towns

February 4, 2004
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Amid the sea views, palm trees and barbed wire of the Gaza Strip’s Jewish settlements, defiance is rising against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement that he might dismantle most of the area’s Jewish communities.

Speaking on the lawns of sprawling, multi-level houses or in trailers set on sandy slopes, residents say they will work to foil any attempt to make them move — but they won’t fight against soldiers or police sent to remove them by force.

“If we have to evacuate, it will be with pain, but it won’t be accompanied by violence,” said Nurit Hendel, one of the original founders of Tel Katifa, a settlement of some 20 families on the Mediterranean coast.

Most settlers dismiss Sharon’s plan to evacuate 17 of the strip’s 20 Jewish settlements as just one of many plans that have come and gone since Jews began moving back to the area some 30 years ago.

In an interview Monday with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, and then at a meeting of his own Likud Party, Sharon said his goal was to remove most of the Jewish settlements from Gaza as part of his plan to unilaterally disengage from the Palestinians.

“The aim is to move settlements from places where they cause us problems or places where we won’t remain in a permanent arrangement,” Sharon told Ha’aretz.

Hendel — the daughter of Zvi Hendel, a legislator from the National Union bloc who has championed the rights of Gaza’s Jews — grew up in the main bloc of settlements here, known as Gush Katif.

She remembers no other home and cannot fathom life anywhere but this arid, desert landscape by the beach, she says.

Barrages of mortar fire, shootings and roadside bombings since the Palestinian intifada began three years ago have put Gaza’s settlements on the frontline — but they haven’t deterred Hendel or her neighbors.

Nor has sending her seven-year-old daughter to school in an armored convoy of soldiers.

On one edge of Hendel’s settlement lies the Palestinian village of Dir el-Balah, and nearby is a small army outpost of several dozen Israeli soldiers.

The soldiers guard the settlers, manning a gate and a watchtower that overlooks the village. A tank and an armored personnel carrier are perched on a bluff alongside their encampment.

Sharon’s comments have prompted a political storm in Israel, with settlers urging right-wing allies in the Knesset to push for Sharon’s overthrow.

“The residents of Gush Katif, with the active support of other partners from the national camp, will do all in their power, within the limits of the law, to bring an end to Ariel Sharon’s term as prime minister,” read a statement from the Gaza Coast Regional Council, which represents several settlements in the area.

Sharon’s spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin, said the plan was not set in stone and that the picture could change if the Palestinian Authority became a viable partner in peace efforts — though it’s doubtful the Palestinians would accept Israeli settlements in Gaza even under a formal peace agreement.

Gissin said the withdrawal plan was being put together on the chance that the Palestinian Authority might collapse, leaving Israel responsible for the fate of the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million Palestinians.

“In the absence of any partner in the map for peace, we have to prepare a plan that will enable us to cut our losses,” Gissin told JTA in a phone interview.

About 7,500 Jewish settlers live in the Gaza Strip. Many are religious and claim the land as their biblical birthright.

Yigal Kirshenzaft, principal of a religious school for girls in the settlement of Atzmona, was among Jewish settlers evacuated from the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982 as part of Israel’s peace accord with Egypt.

Abandoning Gaza settlements would be much more difficult, he says, because of the settlers’ ideological and religious ties to this land.

“I don’t think Jewish history would forgive us” if there were an evacuation, says Kirshenzaft, who moved to the settlement of Neve Dekalim directly after Yamit was dismantled.

Last October, he and his wife were caught in a shooting attack along the main road that settlers use to reach Gush Katif. His wife was lightly injured, but Kirshenzaft says his family — which includes 12 children — is determined to stay.

“Throughout the history of Israel, people have laid down their lives for the land,” he said.

According to opinion polls, most Israelis favor a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Some say the cost — both in money and in Israeli soldiers’ lives — has been too high to justify a continued Israeli presence.

“Many of us have lost children for a cause none of us believes in,” said Robi Damelin, spokeswoman for the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost relatives in the violence. “There is no reason on earth we should be there.”

As dusk falls Tuesday, a 20-year old soldier from Jerusalem mans his post overlooking the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis, which borders Neve Dekalim. Black strips of plastic hang from the doorway, and the soldier keeps a hand on his machine gun, which is aimed through a window at Khan Yunis’ squat concrete houses.

If anyone approaches the wall separating the settlement from the town, he is under orders to shoot, says the soldier, who is not allowed to give his name.

For the past two years he has served mostly in the Gaza Strip, he says, and he believes in his mission. A decision to evacuate, the soldier says, would only bring terrorism that much closer to Israel.

Inside the settlement, 20 families rejoiced Monday, the day they received permission from the government to begin construction on a new neighborhood.

They shrugged off Sharon’s comments about withdrawal — which, they noted, had been made the same day as permission was granted for the new neighborhood.

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