In their homes perched on a sand dune near the Mediterranean Sea, 44 determined Israelis wait for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel to disintegrate. ``The name of [our] settlement means `to go back to Sinai,' '' said Avi Farhan, one of the founders of Eilei Sinai. ``I hope that Israel will return to Sinai, because Sinai was a part of Israel. We didn't return it to Egypt, we gave it to Egypt.''
South of Eilei Sinai, another settlement also holds Israelis who are waiting to return to Sinai. The settlement is called Neve Dekalim, and its most distinguishing feature is a 60-foot-high concrete synagogue that rises from the rounded sand dunes surrounding the settlement.
Neve Dekalim is the regional center for the Jewish settlements of Gaza. It is an ultra-orthodox settlement, and many of its 130 families regard the return of the Sinai to Egypt as a crime. Under the terms of a March 1979 peace treaty, Israel withdrew from the largely desert Sinai Peninsula, which it had occupied since the 1967 Mideast war. Sinai was returned to Egypt, but not without resistance from Israelis who had settled there over the years.
The most extreme among the settlers of Gaza represent a minority of Israelis -- those who feel that absolutely no territorial concessions should be made to any Arab states in return for peace. But some of their views -- that no more territory should be conceded, that the peace treaty with Egypt is hollow, and that a sort of divine version of manifest destiny gives Israel the right to retain the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- are held by many Israelis.
Were the Israeli government ever to include the Gaza Strip in a territorial concession to a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, these settlers would present a very real and painful political problem. Many say openly that they would resist any effort to evacuate them.
Avi Farhan fought with the Israeli Army in the Sinai in 1967 and 1969. In April 1982, he was one of the Israelis dragged by the Army from the Yamit settlement which Israel evacuated after signing the peace treaty with Egypt.
He and other settlers from Yamit moved a few miles north and founded settlements in the Gaza strip, a narrow length of farmland and sand dunes occupied by Israel since the 1967 Mideast war.
Today there are no more than 1,500 Israeli settlers in Gaza. This is in sharp contrast to the 45,000 to 50,000 Israelis who live in the occupied West Bank. Gaza is much smaller than the West Bank, much more remote from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and much more densely populated by Palestinians -- some 500,000 live in the strip. Gaza does not have the historic and religious pull of the West Bank for Israelis, many of whom regard the West Bank as the heart of Biblical Israel and, therefore, mandated by God to be part of Eretz Yisrael -- Greater Israel.
``We need jobs here, that is what limits our growth,'' said Eli Feist, a chemical engineer who moved to Neve Dekalim because he and his wife, Rachel, and their five children, wanted to live in a new settlement ``near the sea.'' Eli and Rachel commute daily to work in Beersheba, a 11/2-hour drive each way, as do most of the adults of Neve Dekalim.
For those reasons, it has been hard for the Gaza to attract Israeli settlers. Those who do settle are mostly agriculturalists and ultranationalists.
The settlement consists of a cluster of tiny trailers, guarded by four bored-looking Israeli Army soldiers. But Farhan proudly displays his plans for a much larger settlement, with homes, a community center, and schools. On the beach down the road from Eilei Sinai, he runs a small concession stand in the summer, and has plans also to enlarge the concession stand to a resort.
Many more families would move to Gaza, Farhan maintains, if the government would invest in building there. For now, the families living in Eilei Sinai commute to nearby Ashkelon to work and shop.
The most readily apparent impact of the Gaza settlers is the appropriation of land for them. Some 15 percent of the area of Gaza is now fenced off for settlements, according to Israeli figures. The barbed wire fences around the settlements are the most many Gazan Palestinians ever see of their Jewish neighbors.
``There used to come here Jewish people to the market, to buy things. Lately, because there were those incidents where some were attacked, their presence is less and less,'' says Dr. Haydar Abdl Shafi, a native Gazan.
A rash of attacks on Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank in last spring and summer led to an Israeli Army crackdown in September and October, and several Arab residents complained that soldiers were harassing them. An Israeli Army spokesman acknowledged that there were some incidents of harrassment, but said that on the whole, the Army conducted itself well.
As do their counterparts in the West Bank, many Gazan settlers drive around the strip armed with machine guns and pistols. Most stay clear of the main Palestinian population centers.
But although there exists in Gaza the same explosive mix of settlers, the Army, and Palestinians, as on the West Bank, the area remains remarkably easy for the Israelis to occupy, observes one Western diplomat.
``What is hard to understand is not that there is occasionally trouble down there, but why there isn't more,'' he says. Second in a three-part series on the Gaza Strip. The first part appeared Thursday, Dec. 19.