Jewish settlers in Gaza Strip wonder how long Israel will support their enclaves

September 26, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

GUSH KATIF — GUSH KATIF, Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip -- Behind the high-voltage fences, behind the rolls of barbed wire, behind the Uzi-toting guards who keep the white-washed suburbs free of encroaching Arab slums, the Jewish settlers are glum.

The artificial world they created -- the neat and tidy Israeli settlements amid a seething sea of Palestinians -- will be isolated and likely engulfed by Palestinian self-government.

Israel's government has promised all the settlements, even this thin string of Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of the Gaza Strip, will remain protected by the Israeli army under the accord signed earlier this month with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Many here do not believe it. Most cannot see how that security will last for very long. Few look with confidence to the future.

"There will be no choice but to leave," said a dispirited Shula Orbach, 32, on a stroll with her four children inside one of the heavily guarded settlements.

"We have a very good life, and we don't want it overturned," she said. "But when the Arabs start taking control, people will start to feel strangled here.

"We just hope it will be an orderly evacuation, rather than being overrun," she said, looking toward her young children.

The Israel-PLO agreement approved Thursday by the Israeli parliament calls for withdrawal of troops from Jericho and the Gaza Strip by December 13, followed by a pullback from population centers in the rest of the West Bank.

The areas are to be under the control of a new Palestinian Council, and policed by a new Palestinian police force.

Gaza and Jericho are first in the plan, because they were considered least problematic. There are no Jewish settlements in Jericho, and the Gaza Strip is a teeming slum that most Israelis long wished to be rid of-- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once said he hoped it would "disappear into the sea."

Nearly forgotten in the deal were 16 small Jewish settlements -- collectively called Gush Katif -- in the Gaza Strip. These are barricaded outposts of nationalists who lay claim to all the land captured by Israel in the 1967 War.

The settlers say there are 5,200 Jews here. Leftists say the figure is closer to 3,500. Either is a drop in the Gaza Strip bucket, crowded with 800,000 Palestinians.

The Israeli government says the settlements will not be forced to close, and they will be protected. It has not said how that will be done.

To many settlers here, the uncertainties evoke the threat of Yamit. Four years after the Camp David accords were signed with Egypt, Israeli soldiers forcibly removed 5,000 Jewish settlers from the small Sinai town of Yamit and dynamited it before turning it over to Egypt in April, 1982.

"We knew it would happen here someday," said Hadas Shtivi, a 17-year-old high school student. "It was inevitable. Lots of people can't resign themselves to the fact that they may have to leave. But what are they going to do, live here under Palestinian autonomy?"

The settlers have become attached to their stage-prop world. The Mediterranean beachfront settlements are taken from a Florida set: boxy white stucco homes with sandy lawns and a smattering of palm trees. The single hotel here is called the Palm Beach Hotel. It is quiet, sleepy.

Behind that scene are the fortifications that keep them separate from the rest of the Gaza Strip, where refugees from Israeli-Arab wars in 1948 and 1967 were dumped and have been kept in squalor by both Egypt until 1967 and Israel since then.

These are two different worlds: The Jewish settlements have paved roads, streetlights, modern water and sewers and electricity that works. Their homes have paneling and pictures, furniture and stereos.

In the Palestinian refugee camps, sewage flows in dirt streets. Drinking water is polluted; babies die at record rates. Many houses are made of tin or cement. They are bare inside.

Many from each world know little of the other. Most settlers use a road finished last year that skirts the Palestinians areas.

The Arabs would be stopped at the gates to the settlements even if they tried to visit.

Worlds once united

Two decades ago, the enmity that now separates those worlds was not here. The first Jewish settlers were encouraged to move here by the Israeli government, and were not initially rejected by the Arabs.

Anita Tucker remembers, with irony, that it was Mr. Rabin, then in his first term as prime minister, who welcomed them to the Netzer Hazani settlement in Gush Katif in 1976.

"He said we were going to be an integral part of Israel," said Mrs. Tucker, 48, who had immigrated to Israel from Brooklyn six years earlier. "We thought we would be an example for everyone. We thought we would be living peacefully with Arabs."

Mr. Rabin's Labor government encouraged some settlements as strategic outposts for Israel. "The government was behind us then," said Mrs. Tucker.

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