Gaza settlers weigh price of withdrawal

Israel agreed last week to pay settlers in the Gaza Strip who voluntarily leave $200,000 to $500,000.

For Avi Farhan, a founder of this scenic Gaza Strip settlement along the Mediterranean, it is a case of déjà vu.

With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushing - despite opposition - plans to evacuate 21 Israeli settlements in the coastal enclave, Mr. Farhan has been thinking about the last days of the Yamit settlement in the Sinai Peninsula, where he lived before being evicted as part of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace deal.

Like the Sinai settlements, the Gaza and West Bank settlements were established in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, say many international observers. The convention proscribes an occupying power from moving its nationals into occupied territory.

Although this time withdrawal is to be unilateral and without a peace agreement, a similar evacuation will await Elei Sinai and its 85 families if Mr. Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from the 1.3 million Palestinians in the Strip and others in the northern West Bank is implemented. That prospect is dividing Elei Sinai between those determined to overturn Sharon's plan and those reconciled to giving up their community.

Most of Elei Sinai's residents are non-ideological people and are therefore more accepting of the withdrawal idea than the far more numerous residents of the Katif Bloc in southern Gaza, where many view their area as part of a biblical patrimony promised by God to Abraham. Moezet Yesha, the settlement's council, says that 95 percent of Gush Katif residents refuse to leave. Peace Now, a group that opposes settlements, says that estimate is way too high.

The withdrawal plans hit home last week after the security cabinet voted 9 to 1 to offer advances for those who leave voluntarily and set compensation parameters ranging between $200,000 and $500,000 depending on house size, family size, and years of residence.

"The government is trying to use money to persuade settlers to evacuate willingly" says Uzi Benziman, a writer for Haaretz. In Yamit, advances were not offered when the settlement was evacuated, Mr. Benziman recalled, but most settlers eventually agreed to be evacuated in exchange for compensation.

But in Elei Sinai, settlers say the compensation offer is too low, and independent real estate analysts say it will keep those evacuated in peripheral areas rather than enabling families to move to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Yamit was evacuated despite the opposition of Farhan and others. It was bulldozed on the orders of then defense minister Ariel Sharon in 1982 as part of the handover of Sinai to Egypt following the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

"I remember hundreds of soldiers outside my house and my daughters ... standing at the doorway," Farhan recalls. "They stood there, and the soldiers psychologically could not bring themselves to enter the house.

"If 60 percent of the residents of Gaza and northern Samaria can stand like that and transmit a message that we are not open to negotiations and are staying, then there will be no withdrawal," Farhan says.

Many residents here do not see eye-to-eye with Farhan. "He is much more into Greater Israel, whereas I simply view Elei Sinai as my home," says Nira Bohadana, a teacher who moved to the settlement 11 years ago. "I understand that we will have to leave in the end, but it's a very bad feeling."

Still, in her view, the compensation is "unfair and shameful, a bad joke," she says. "This isn't so much about money, but on the other hand, money is the indication of how much the government values you and your leaving your home. I think there should have been money for the psychological distress, so they will know what a wrong they are committing by uprooting me from here."

The $200,000 compensation is roughly enough to buy a 200-square-meter house in a community in the Negev desert, and more than enough to buy an apartment for six people in Ashkelon, the city nearest the Strip, says Ofer Petersburg, economics writer for Yediot Ahronot newspaper. But it's nowhere near the price of an apartment for six in Tel Aviv, which costs about $1 million, he says. The Gaza settlers "real estate options are very limited ... if they want to return to the center of the country they have a problem."

Sigal Barda, who has lived in Elei Sinai for 13 years and is reconciled to leaving, says: "The fact that they are giving so little in compensation makes leaving harder. If the sums remain this way, I don't know how many people will leave quickly and easily."

Yet, Yaacov Lev, a member of the Gaza Coast Regional Council, says the issue is not money. "We invested our hearts and souls in every tree and path in this place.... We will fight in every legal manner to remove this evil decree."

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