Making their last stand in Gaza

SUN JOURNAL

Settlers: Despite recent setbacks, residents of towns targeted for evacuation are encouraged by newcomers moving in to help them hold their ground.

April 06, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEVEH DEKALIM, Gaza Strip - Ruthie Greenlick acknowledges that the past week has been a disaster for Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip.

Their last-ditch efforts to have Israel's lawmakers block the planned evacuation of their homes this summer failed, as did their hopes for a 36-hour vigil outside Israel's parliament, which fizzled in less than 12 hours.

But the 40-year-old mother of five did not despair.

Not a settler herself, she decided that the best way to support the Gaza settlers' cause was to join them. So early last week, she and her family packed their bags and moved from their comfortable two-story, six-bedroom house in the Tel Aviv suburbs to a cramped two-room apartment in Neveh Dekalim, one of the 21 Gaza settlements slated for evacuation.

"We know how special all the people are here, and we thought it was the right time to give them moral support and frankly to stop talking and stop only having ideas and start expressing them in action," Greenlick said.

Settler leaders say that in recent months as many as 600 people like Greenlick have arrived in the Jewish settlements in Gaza.

Many of the newest arrivals have defied a military order of March 17, barring Israelis from moving to Gaza. More settlers will follow, say organizers, who hope to fill every home, back yard and hotel with thousands of people before the summer, creating such large crowds that Israeli police and soldiers will abandon their efforts to remove them.

Other settlers threatened last week to take the fight against the evacuation plan into the streets, warning that it may lead to violence and civil war. Meanwhile, a leaflet issued by rabbis and right-wing Jewish groups called on reservist Israeli soldiers to desert from the army after Passover, so as to not assist in the evacuation plan known as disengagement.

The rhetoric in Israel has intensified since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon swept aside two final obstacles to disengagement last week, defeating a proposal to hold a referendum on the issue and then winning support for his budget. If the budget had not been approved, Sharon's government would have collapsed.

In response to the defeats, the Settlers Council said that Sharon "brutally prevented the possibility of allowing the people to decide" in a referendum, warning of a "violent confrontation and civil war."

"The Knesset has voted for violence, for civil war, for the next political assassination in Israel," said Yehuda Glick, a former government spokesman, referring to the 1995 murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an extremist opposed to Rabin's efforts toward peace. Settlers Council head Bentsi Lieberman told Army Radio that "we will move to action in the streets."

How seriously these threats should be taken is not clear.

By late last week, there were signs of warming relations between settlers and the government. During a Thursday night meeting with settler leaders, the public security minister and the police commissioner agreed that soldiers and police officers would be unarmed during disengagement. Settlers in turn would be asked to turn in their weapons voluntarily.

Settler leaders also planned to meet with Sharon next week to ask for higher monetary compensation for leaving.

According to public opinion polls, the settlers' cause does not enjoy widespread support.

Sharon has argued that removing the 8,500 settlers from Gaza, which is also home to 1.3 million Palestinians, would help secure a lasting peace. But opponents view the unilateral move as a victory for terrorism that might lead to the ruin of the Jewish state.

Despite the heated language and the high stakes of this debate, many settlers, including Greenlick, have sworn off violence. She says that if asked to leave her new home, she will go. "I will not fight," she said.

In Neveh Dekalim, an urban settlement of 520 families overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, some residents appeared to be coming to terms with the reality of their defeat.

"In the past week, twice we got knocked out," said Alia Yzhack, deputy mayor of the Gush Katif settlement block in southern Gaza. "We haven't succeeded in winning the hearts of the people."

Like many of the deeply religious settlers here, Yzhack said he would rely on his faith to save his community, although that might not be enough.

"Our sages said that even if a sword is lying on your throat, don't give up hope. So we are putting our politicians on the side. What's left is prayer. And if in the end this will happen, maybe it was the wish of God. Maybe he wants to save us from something in the future that could be worse," he said.

Still, not all settlers are willing to compromise.

Datya Yitzhaki, who has lived in the settlement of Kfar Yam in a white stucco two-story home on the beach for 21 years, says she has no plans to leave without a show of civil disobedience.

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