Gaza settlers, warned to pull up stakes, plan to dig in

The kumquat trees planted in the sand of their front yard are still flimsy and young.

Roni and Efrat Bakshy, who planted themselves here two decades ago, insist they and their seven children will be picking the bittersweet orange fruit for years to come.

"I've been here for 20 years. I arranged every corner of this house. Every pipe, I know where it starts and where it leads. Every tree, I planted," says Roni Bakshy, a bearded man who serves on the settlement's religious council and performs ritual circumcisions.

But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last week that he has plans to evacuate the Bakshy family along with more than 7,500 other Jewish settlers in Gaza. That startling announcement - along with a new plan to alter the course of the separation wall through the West Bank - is apparently designed to extricate Israel unilaterally from the conflict with the Palestinians.

If the Bakshys are representative, Gaza settlers will not go quietly - if they go at all. Unlike the larger Israeli settlements near Jerusalem and in the West Bank, more than 75 percent of the settlers here are religious nationalists. The Bakshys form the ideological core of those who see this land as God-given and as much a part of Israel as the rest of the Jewish state. They live in 17 gated compounds guarded by the Israeli army and surrounded by more than one million Palestinians.

While the Israeli government is beginning to crunch numbers, calculating what it would cost to evacuate and how much each family might receive as compensation, the Bakshys insist that they - and others here - are not interested in being paid to leave.

"I don't think there's a man in the world who would give up his home, certainly not me," says Mr. Bakshy. "I will fight for my house. I am not ashamed to say it. I will fight for it with all my power."

It would not be for the first time. Bakshy was in Yammit, the lone Israeli settlement in the Sinai Peninsula on the Red Sea, when Israel returned it to Egypt as part of the 1979 Camp David Accords. At the age of 18, Bakshy went to study at Yammit's yeshiva, or religious seminary, less than a year before the Israeli army forcefully evacuated the settlement. Among the young settlers who resisted was Efrat, now his wife, who was 15 at the time.

"I held onto the door. They pulled us away and after they let us go, we went back in," recalls Mrs. Bakshy. She cannot imagine having to go through such an ordeal a second time.

The two didn't know each other then, but met later; Mr. Bakshy says that an interest in settling Gaza was one of his requirements for any future Mrs. Bakshy.

"There are some people who came for the quality of life, the view," says Mr. Bakshy, looking at the horizon of azure Mediterranean ocean stretching wide beyond Neve Dekalim. The settlement was founded in 1982 by many of the Yammit evacuees. "Most of us came for our beliefs. But each of us feels this is our home. Am I Sharon's sheep, that he can just lead me here or there?"

Prime Minister Sharon, in fact, may shepherd many of the Gaza settlers across Israel and into the West Bank, a concept that Palestinian prime minister Ahemd Qurei, or Abu Ala, decried as "totally unacceptable."

While the Palestinian leadership has shown tepid approval of Sharon's plan - it is hard for any Palestinian to argue against Israeli plans to withdraw from territory occupied in the 1967 war.

Sharon is expected to present a more comprehensive view of what he has in mind to senior US officials here later this week. By packaging the proposed withdrawal from Gaza with an altered route of the separation barrier - 63 miles shorter than the original approved by the government, the Haaretz newspaper reported Sunday - Sharon's big picture may emerge as a more sellable one. Or so Sharon's office hopes.

Adviser Zalman Shoval says that the goal of the changed path of the barrier would be to alleviate suffering caused to Palestinians cut off from school, work and family.

Mr. Shoval says that the Gaza settlers, if evacuated, would not be moved en masse to the West Bank, but would have the option of moving to large, existing settlements that he says are already in the "national consensus" and are expected to be annexed to Israel anyway.

"The whole idea of withdrawals must be seen as part of an ... all encompassing concept. It's not just we're going to get out of Gaza," says Shoval. "That would be seen as a prize for terror. The prime minister is looking at withdrawal from Gaza as part of a wide-ranging plan to withdraw from territories as a whole."

Of the approximately 7,800 settlers in Gaza, Shoval says, some might want to move to Israel, or to start new communities in the underpopulated Western Negev in Israel's south, not far from here. Any settlers forced to leave their homes, he says, will have a choice of where they want to live - within limits. They will not be allowed to start new settlements in the West Bank, nor to move to small, indefensible ones - much less "illegal outposts" that many Israelis and Palestinians expect to be evacuated. "We do not think that giving these people the opportunity settle in Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, or Gush Etzion goes against the precepts of the road map, because we are not going to build new settlements for them."

Sharon's connection between the potential Gaza evacuation and the fence, say political analysts, is well orchestrated. "Sharon is softening the blow of Gaza by promising to grow in the West Bank," says Asher Cohen, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. "He has to do something that will make people believe, it's the price we'll pay, but we'll gain in other places."

The moving of Gaza settlers, if it happens, will be an expensive undertaking. Shoval, a former ambassador to the US, denied reports that suggested Israel is asking Washington for help. But the Yedioth Ahonoth newspaper reports that it could cost between $220,000 and $320,00 to compensate each family for leaving their home - and approximately 1,700 households would need to be resettled. The evacuation of factories, businesses, and hothouses, the paper said, could cost up to nearly half a billion dollars.

The Bakshys are not interested in even discussing compensation packages. Their strategy consists of prayer, planning demonstrations against Sharon - and more planting. Mrs. Bakshy plucks a kumquat from the thin tree and notes that it's a perfect fruit to celebrate Tu B'Shvat, a minor Jewish holiday that celebrates new fruits and has taken on an added importance this year.

Although polls show that a majority of Israelis will back Sharon's plan, she doesn't want to believe that she, too, might be plucked from this place. "If we can't bear to transfer Palestinians off their land," she says, "how can we do it to ourselves?"

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