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May 18, 2005

Gaza Moves Into Unsettling Times

by Jim Lobe

GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip - Israel's government last week postponed the implementation of its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip for three weeks, ostensibly to take into account an annual Jewish period of mourning.

One look around the settlements and a few conversations with some people there confirm what has been mooted as an alternative explanation for the delay: the government is nowhere near ready.

Posters line the road into the Gaza Strip, proclaiming the Jewish presence there to be "eternal" and pronouncing the impossibility of Jews evicting other Jews from their homes.

The evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan is now slated to take place in August. It will entail the removal of some 7,000 settlers who now occupy more than 20 percent of the Strip's scarce land, amid some 1.5 million Palestinians who live on the remainder.

The settlers are mobilizing their supporters throughout the country. They show up in Gush Katif, the settlement bloc in the south of the Strip, for demonstrations on holidays. And, as happened again this week on Monday, they block highways in the center of the country with burning tires in protests against the "disengagement."

But in the settlements themselves, away from the orange-clad protesters, life continues much as before. Here and there major construction projects are still in progress, supplies are being delivered, and cranes and bulldozers are at work, as if expansion is on the agenda rather than dismantlement.

Opposite Neve Dekalim, the largest of the Gush Katif settlements, a new wooden synagogue has arisen on a spot where the ultra-orthodox believers who pray there say a settler was killed by Palestinian fire. A group of mostly very young newcomers want to set up the first ultra-orthodox settlement in the bloc. For now, they sleep in tents next to the synagogue, in the soft sand dunes.

"We are here to build, not to be evacuated," says Raziel Shevaz, barely 19, and dressed in the ultra-orthodox way, with side curls framing his face and fringes coming out from under his shirt. He is from Holon, a commuter town next to Tel Aviv in the secular and well-to-do center of the country.

As Shevaz talks at the end of the midday prayer, a huge explosion rocks the site, and he dives to the ground. Just a few dozen meters away, a large plume of smoke rises from the settlement's greenhouses. It is a Palestinian Qassam rocket.

The militant groups have kept up their attacks despite a cease-fire that is supposed to be in place. The Israelis have not always stuck to the truce either but the government seems to want to keep things calm for now.

The group of ultra-orthodox settlers does not want to come out directly to oppose the withdrawal. "No, we are not training or preparing in any way for when the soldiers come," says Shevaz. But the well-rehearsed rhetoric of the right does come to the surface very quickly. "What do we feel about the disengagement? Well, how do you think the Jews in Europe felt when the Nazis came to take them away?"

The level of bile among the settlers varies. During a recent holiday, the settler movement had people perform so-called "scenes from life in Gaza" in an open amphitheater in Neve Dekalim. An actor in Arab dress, leaning on a walking stick, announced himself as Abu Ziad, a Palestinian from Gaza City.

"If the Palestinian Authority knew that I was here telling you what they really think about the Jews, they would kill me," was his opening line. He told the audience of children and their amused parents that they should never trust the Palestinians, despite all the agreements "that are not worth the paper they are written on." Then he launched into a fictional account of how he himself one night had rounded up a few men "to kill the Jews."

Such propaganda, which verges on incitement, seems to reflect the official position of the Gush Katif council and its spokesmen, but is quite far removed from the responses of the majority of the settlers.

One prominent rabbi in Neve Dekalim says his main problem with the evacuation is that he does not know where he and his family will live in a few months. He blames the government for not giving the settlers more time.

The rabbi is opposed to the move but emphasizes the nonviolent nature of the opposition, which he says he also propagates to all his students.

The settlement of Rafiah Yam, just to the south of Neve Dekalim and next to the border with Egypt commands some of the most stunning views of the Mediterranean. But many of its red-roofed villas are empty, not the result of the disengagement plan but rather of the violence that has plagued the spot since its inception in the 1980s.

Socrate Soussan is an immigrant from France who has lived in Rafiah Yam since 1989. His villa overlooks the sea, where he fishes for a living with his business partner, Martin Ganor. He also grows tomatoes in the nearby greenhouses that lie just outside the settlement and are even less secure.

"We can't go on like this," says Soussan. "If only for our children, we should leave here." He says that four of his friends have been killed by Palestinians in the time that he has been living in the settlement, and gives a long litany of violence among the greenhouses.

He says he is not in Rafiah Yam because of conviction. "I just fell in love with the place." But he adds that the government should have done something about it.

Soussan and Ganor are upset that the government has not acted more quickly and proactively to arrange for their evacuation. "Nobody has been here to talk to us," says Soussan.

He says he is willing to move but demands proper compensation, so that he can set up his business again somewhere else. That kind of demand is criticized especially by left-wing Israelis who contend that the settlers received enough government support when they moved to Gaza.

"I don't want more than I deserve," says Soussan. "I am a farmer and a fisherman. I want to be able to work, I don't want to receive handouts and live like a parasite."

Martin Ganor is less willing to leave but concedes he will not have a choice. He is perturbed by the thought of what will happen to the textile industry that he and his wife built up over the last couple of decades. It employs Palestinian workers from the nearby town of Rafah.

"We have considered handing it all over to them, but there is no clarity about compensation, about anything," he says.

There is no clarity over what will happen to the settlements after evacuation. The government has said the houses will be destroyed, but is reconsidering this because it would harm Israel's image and because the demolition and the cleaning up would take months.

The Palestinians prefer demolition, officially because the houses are unsuited to their urban development plans and unofficially because of the symbolism and because of the political headache in assigning the evacuated houses.

Socrate Soussan does not care what will happen to his house in Rafiah Yam, he is just wondering what will happen to him. "If the government had come to us much more quickly and dealt with our future, opposition to the disengagement would have been much less."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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