The Gaza pullout through the eyes of 12-year-olds

Even at 12, Daniel Rotenstein has a lot at stake in today's Knesset vote on Ariel Sharon's plan that could dismantle his hometown of 500 Israeli settler families in the Gaza Strip.

He's eager to leave. It's not just because there are Palestinian mortars falling near his house. It's his Israeli neighbors, too. He has become the target of a school bully angry that Daniel's father will accept compensation and leave Gaza.

But his classmate Nati Goldstein, also 12, is as adamant about staying. Neve Dekalim, their settlement, is "the best place on earth," he says. He wants to see the disengagement plan overturned.

While school is canceled today for Nati and Daniel and tens of thousands of other settler children in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it's not a day of celebration. Many of the children will travel to Jerusalem to protest outside the Knesset as it votes on Mr. Sharon's withdrawal plans, a step that means the dismantling of 21 settlements in Gaza. Another four are to be dismantled in the northern West Bank.

Settlement leaders say children make their case well.

They are distributing a video that features settler children who were injured in Palestinian attacks.

For Daniel and Nati a yes vote by the Knesset, which is expected, could doom Neve Dekalim, the largest Gaza settlement, where the two boys live.

Neve Dekalim was built in 1983 and consists of red-roofed villas with gardens and palm tree-lined, shady streets that give it the feel of a Mediterranean resort village. But the signs of possible extinction are now obvious. Hanging from the local council building is a defiant banner that reads: "We are on the map and will remain on the map."

The Khan Yunis refugee camp is nearby, but with a for-Israelis-only road network linking the settlement to Israel, Palestinian Gaza and its 1.3 million inhabitants are generally out of sight. In a major army operation yesterday just hours before the start of the Knesset debate, 13 Palestinians were killed as Israeli troops surged into the Khan Yunis camp in a raid the army said was sparked by Palestinian mortar attacks.

The Associated Press reported that the Palestinian fatalities from the operation included members of the Palestinian security forces and an 11-year-old boy. An army official said two soldiers were wounded.

Sharon is expected to win the Knesset vote with the support of the opposition Labor Party. But the real battle will be over how big a majority he will receive. If it's thin, that will boost the case of those insisting on a national referendum over the pullout plan.

During his speech in the Knesset yesterday, Sharon dismissed criticism of his plan. "It is essential to do this even with all the suffering it causes. This will strengthen Israel's hold on area's vital to our existence and be welcomed near and far."

Daniel's family is counting on Sharon. "The main thing is that the disengagement should pass in the Knesset and they should give enough compensation for everyone to build a new life elsewhere," says his father, Meir Rotenstein.

In recent months, Daniel, already living in fear of the mortar attacks, has also had to pay for the perceived sins of his father, who broke ranks with other settlers and announced he wanted to leave Neve Dekalim in exchange for compensation.

Daniel stopped going to school two weeks ago, after a classmate struck him, threw water bags at him, and taunted him for being a "leftist." Daniel says the classmate also struck his brother Joseph, 11. "I can't go back, because the school hasn't taken care of the problem," Daniel says.

Asked if he understood what a "leftist" is, Daniel replied: "A rightist is someone who does not want to be evacuated, while a leftist wants to be evacuated. Because I have a different opinion, they call me a leftist. I don't think it is bad to be a leftist." He says Joseph still goes to school, but carries stones in his bag to use against possible attack.

Most of the class, including Nati, went to Daniel's house and asked him to come back to school, but to no avail. "It's not OK to hit him," says Nati. "I can disagree with his father's opinion, but that doesn't mean he should be struck."

Instead of going to school, Daniel has been helping his father at his appliance store, but that is proving to be no place of refuge since it is being boycotted by many of the settlers. On Sunday, when they opened the shop, they found the windows smeared with egg yolks and plastered with stickers saying, "Uprooting the settlements is a victory for terrorism."

When Daniel minded the store last week, he heard a neighboring storekeeper reprimand the customer outside. "Why are you buying from there? It is forbidden," Daniel recalls him saying.

"Business is down to about zero," says Mr. Rotenstein. "My telephone has been cut for outgoing calls, I can't pay the mortgage or even the electricity. But I will not close until the evacuation. I won't give these people the feeling they defeated me."

Nati, meanwhile, hopes the day of evacuation will never come. "Maybe the government thinks we will be tempted by the money, but money is not everything in life," says the precocious youngster.

Asked why he loves Neve Dekalim so much, he says: "It's not like a city, you don't have to take a taxi to see your friends. When I walk around, I know everyone. We have restaurants, a supermarket, a bank, everything you need. We have great youth clubs where we play basketball and fly planes by remote control."

Nati says the mortar attacks do not trouble him much because "if God wants me to die, I will die. Most of the mortars fall in the sands." He adds that he thinks God watches over the settlements since the mortars have resulted in only a few fatalities during several years of persistent firing. "Of course it is a miracle. It is from God because we are here to guard the homeland, to guard our land."

Daniel takes a different view of the mortars. He says five Palestinian mortars have fallen near his house, including one recently in his neighbor's yard. "I'm afraid a mortar will fall on our house. When I told this to my parents, they told me that they are also afraid," he says.

Meir Rotenstein says: "There is nothing I can do about the mortars. I have a 4-year-old who knows the word mortar and what it can do."

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