Tue, Dec 23, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Settlers pensive over evacuation

AP , NETZARIM, GAZA STRIP

An Israeli settler boy jokes in front of his house in the isolated Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Residents of the isolated Jewish settlement of Netzarim refuse to believe that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will uproot their community, even after he told the nation that some settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip might be moved to improve security.

Located just southwest of Gaza City and isolated in a sea of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Netzarim is the first settlement that comes to the minds of many when thoughts turn to evacuating untenable settlements.

Netzarim's 400 residents depend on armored vehicles to move in and out of the Gaza Strip. Altogether, about 7,000 Jews live in Gaza settlements among 1.3 million Palestinians. Though official figures are unavailable, hundreds of soldiers guard the area.

Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state and demand that all the settlements be dismantled. Israeli doves have said for years that all or most of the settlements must go in the name of peace.

Now even Sharon, for decades a main architect of the settlement movement, has joined a growing number of Israelis who believe that settlements must eventually be dismantled, even without a peace deal.

In a policy speech last week, Sharon said some settlements would be moved to reduce friction, especially those in the midst of Palestinian population centers.

At the beleaguered Gaza settlement on Sunday, Tami Silberschein, a 34-year-old New Jersey native and mother of five, refused to take Sharon's threats seriously.

"Ariel Sharon was one of the founders of Netzarim," she said.

"He has a long history of fighting for Israel. He will never make us leave our homes. It would be like amputating a part of the country," she said.

Many believe that Sharon is responding to international and domestic pressure, but that based on his long support for the settlement movement, he will never abandon their community.

Still, some Netzarim residents recognize that time and events may be working against their interests, particularly since Oct. 24, when a Palestinian gunman killed three soldiers -- two of them women -- during a raid on a settlement guard post.

"I don't have my head in the sand," said Shimon Cohen, 42, who grows cherry tomatoes in one of Netzarim's several high-tech greenhouses.

"I listen to the news. I know what is happening," he said.

Over Cohen's shoulder, a 25m-high guard tower dominates the settlement's landscape, overlooking the Nusseirat refugee camp to the south, Gaza City to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west.

To the east, a heavily fortified Israeli road leads to the Karni checkpoint on the border with Israel.

Settlers enter and leave Netzarim on that road in armored buses protected by convoys of military vehicles, a lesson of dozens of Palestinian shooting and bombing attacks.

"We believe that the right to settle in Netzarim is the same as the right to settle in Tel Aviv," said Shlomit Ziv, even as the Muslim call to prayer wafted over the settlement from a nearby Gaza mosque.

"Sharon knows that. It's inconceivable to think he would order us to leave," she said.

Most appear to discount the rumors of their impending evacuation, rumors that have surfaced several times in recent years.

"I've been here for 11 years," said Ziv, 33, a mother of seven who teaches in a Netzarim elementary school.

"In all that time there's been a lot of talk about abandoning settlements, including this one. But it's never happened. And it never will," she said.

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