Israel's Gaza pullout plan, threatened by settler resistance, received a major boost when a small Jewish settlement agreed to move as a unit to a village inside Israel.
The deal struck by residents of Peat Sadeh, near the Mediterranean Sea in the southwest corner of the Gaza Strip, enraged militant settler leaders. The secretary of the little settlement of 20 families, Meir Ben-Ishai, said his phone line was jammed with angry calls Sunday.
The 244,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza have always been represented by hard-line ideologues who reject any compromise for religious and security reasons, though the majority of settlers moved there seeking a quiet, country-style life and might be amenable to leaving if the terms are right.
Government officials say most of the 8,200 Gaza settlers will take compensation and leave before the summer deadline. Gaza settler leader Eran Sternberg hotly disputed that.
At nightfall on Sunday, dozens of settlers and supporters blocked traffic in Tel Aviv around the Defense Ministry, carrying pieces of mortars and rockets that have fallen on Gaza settlements in recent months.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line coalition government fell apart over his sudden policy shift on settlements a year ago, forcing him to try to reconstitute his team with the moderate Labor Party, his traditional rival.
Early this year, Sharon abruptly abandoned decades of work for settlement construction and expansion, calling Gaza' 21 settlements "untenable" because only 8,200 Israelis live there among more than 1 million Palestinians in the impoverished, crowded seaside territory. He called for removal of the Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank.
Israelis, in contrast, have lived well in Gaza, but their settlements have always been a sore point with the Palestinians. In recent years, mortars and rockets fired by militants in Gaza have rained down on them, and infiltration attempts have multiplied.
At Peat Sadeh, affluence is evident in the neat houses and expensive Mercedes cars parked outside. Residents are farmers and say they do considerable business with their Palestinian neighbors.
"Sharon built this community," said Ella Amin, 39. "He hoped that it would be one of the most beautiful in the area, but the uprising ruined all of our dreams."
Yonatan Bassi, director of the government administration overseeing the Gaza pullout, said the evacuation deal with the residents of Peat Sadeh was reached last week.
He said the settlement's 20 families, joined by five families from other settlements, would move to Mavkiim, a farming village near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, beginning in March.
Residents said they're leaving reluctantly.
"I'm still against it," said Vicki Sabaj, 56, referring to the pullout, "but there's no choice. At least I'll go together with my friends." She did not believe she'd be safer inside Israel. "If I leave, the border moves with me," she said. Mavkiim is just 7km from the Gaza border.
This came as interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made his strongest appeal yet for an end to Palestinian violence against Israel. Abbas, the leading candidate in a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, repeated Arafat's maximalist political positions but said that they must be achieved by political means.