Sharon, settlers face bitter fight on Gaza pullout

Conflict: For Israel's premier, it is a test of political survival. For Jewish residents, it is a battle to keep their homes.

April 27, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GANEI TAL, Gaza Strip - The men and women of this Jewish settlement will mark Israel's Independence Day with disappointment and even bitterness today because of the person who was once their greatest supporter, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

It was Sharon who as an Israeli military commander and then Cabinet minister bulldozed aside all obstacles to have settlements built here, and now it is Sharon who wants the 7,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza to leave.

Members of his Likud Party are to vote Sunday on his plan to abandon the 21 Gaza settlements and unilaterally withdraw Israeli troops, returning the land and Gaza's almost insurmountable economic and political problems to its 1.3 million Palestinians.

For the settlers, the Likud vote could mark the end of their dream of a Greater Israel encompassing all of Gaza and the West Bank. But they are preparing for a political fight that could determine Sharon's future as well as their own.

Rifka Goldschmidt and her husband, Michael, were among the founding members of Ganei Tal, or "Garden Dew," a quarter-century ago. Seventy-five families live here within a larger bloc of settlements known as Gush Katif, in villa-like houses with views of the Mediterranean Sea, barbed wire and army towers.

Residents had put their faith in Sharon. Goldschmidt said she had voted for him last year because he'd promised to fight terror and disdained the opposition's proposal to leave Gaza. She can't believe what she is hearing now.

"I believe Sharon deceived us," Goldschmidt said. "People in Israel, especially the youngsters, really believe that we are imperialist Jews who co-opted Palestinian land. Israelis believe that these places are not part of Israel. How do we fight a Palestinian enemy when we have Israelis helping them?"

The Goldschmidts and two of their children live in a two-story house recently enlarged to six bedrooms, surrounded by a green lawn and manicured shrubs. Withdrawing from Gaza, Goldschmidt said, would be "pure surrender."

"I just don't understand why our leaders don't understand this," she said.

Several hundred residents of Gush Katif are canvassing Likud members throughout Israel and speaking at rallies to generate opposition to the withdrawal plan. Today, as part of Independence Day celebrations, Gush Katif has invited every Israeli to a party at the settlement to demonstrate solidarity.

An opinion poll published yesterday by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot found that 49 percent of the 200,000-strong Likud Party membership supports a withdrawal, the same figure as several weeks ago. However, a large group who were undecided are now with the opposition, now at nearly 40 percent.

While the settlers talk disdainfully of Sharon, their public campaign takes care to distinguish between the prime minister and his disengagement plan. Placards read: "We love you Sharon. We're voting against."

Sharon has said that withdrawing from Gaza would help Israel retain most of its settlements in the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with less land there than they might obtain through formal negotiations.

The prime minister has won endorsements from the United States and senior members of his Cabinet, including his chief rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who backed the plan but has pointedly said that he would not help win Sharon any votes.

Sharon, addressing the nation Sunday night, sought support by talking of Israel's desire for a sense of security.

"It is our duty to know we have done everything so that the rows of headstones will not get any longer," he said.

While Sharon did not directly mention his plan for withdrawal, he talked of his determination to resolve the Palestinian conflict on Israel's terms.

"We will not wait, and we will not delay. We will not allow others to determine our destiny," he said. "We will take this initiative and stride determinedly and courageously forward, and will mold, with our own hands, a reality which will coincide with the security and political interests which are so important to us."

One of Sharon's chief Likud critics, Parliament Speaker Reuvin Rivlin, used last night's traditional torch-lighting ceremony at the beginning of Independence Day to honor "all of the settlers of the land of our forefathers and their redeemers." Rivlin named several settlements, including Gush Katif.

Rivlin's spokesman, Giora Pordes, defended the remarks, saying the settlers are a part of Israel and deserve recognition. "No one has moved them yet," he said.

In a speech earlier in the day, Rivlin stood with settlers in the Gush Etzion bloc in the West Bank and promised to "stand strong against those who seek to harm us, those who seek to rout us and those, heaven forbid, who would have us retreat."

Uri Dromi, an analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute, which monitors Israeli politics, said that support for Sharon's disengagement plan is shaky.

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