As Gaza pullout nears, some Israelis move in

Monday, Israel's Knesset rejected a bid to delay the Gaza Strip withdrawal.

If all goes as planned, this tiny settlement will disappear from maps of the Gaza Strip by August. But Effi Eitam, a legislator for the hard-line National Religious Party, is making it his new home.

When they visited here last week to inspect a small three-bedroom apartment, Mr. Eitam and his wife, Ilit, were greeted with a bouquet and a rendition of "Our Fathers Still Live," a nationalist song.

Eitam, a gruff brigadier-general with a graying beard and a large knitted skullcap, smiled as he took a key to the apartment from a baby. He said he could not promise that the pullout would be stopped, but he wanted to at least show solidarity with the 8,000 Gaza settlers, whom he terms the "bravest, most devoted citizens" of Israel.

The Eitams are among the most prominent members of a vocal minority of Israelis who are deeply opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. That withdrawal, they say, is a threat to their homes. It is also a threat to their uncompromising brand of Jewish nationalism.

"There will be thousands of people and they will be here by order of their heart and conscience, out of the belief that you do not sacrifice your brothers and friends," Eitam says, looking ahead to July 20, when the withdrawal is due to begin. He says he opposes using violence against troops carrying out the evacuation, but voices sympathy for individual soldiers who may be unable to obey an order to evacuate "families, friends, and rabbis."

The possibility of a mass influx of outsiders bent on thwarting or disrupting the pullout concerns Israeli authorities, who may make the Gaza settlements a closed military zone, according to officials.

The pullout is moving closer to realization. Monday, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, rebuffed by a 72-39 vote a proposal by hard-liners to hold a referendum that would've delayed the withdrawal or cancelled it entirely.

Tuesday or Wednesday, the Knesset is expected to pass the state budget after Mr. Sharon secured the support of the secularist Shinui party. Failure to pass the budget would be like losing a no-confidence vote, requiring new elections that could delay the pullout.

The withdrawal is the first-ever dismantling of settlements in an area Palestinians want as part of their future state. Israelis are sharply divided on whether this action is consistent with Zionism, or Jewish nationalism. The government claims it is, but Eitam and others argue fervently that it negates Zionist history. Dovish critics of the government, meanwhile, say that its continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank forecloses the possibility of a viable state for the Palestinians.

Demographics is a key component of the withdrawal debate. At issue: Should the proportion of Palestinians in Gaza - more than 99 percent, or 1.3 million people - determine whether or not Israel should remain in the territory?

Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin says the answer is yes. Israel, he says, must draw its borders so it has a clear Jewish majority, ensuring that it is both a Jewish and democratic state. Staying in Gaza, he says, goes against those goals.

Gissin says that demography is also relevant for the future of the rest of the West Bank, but he adds that "strategic depth" and "defensible borders" are also key considerations. Not including Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, the West Bank is home to an estimated 2.3 million Palestinians and 230,000 Jews.

Eitam, however, argues that Israel, which by his definition includes the West Bank and Gaza, comprises one indivisible land given to the Jewish people by divine promise. Worrying about demography, he says, contravenes Zionism.

"If demography is a reason to run away, then run away from the Galilee and Negev," he says of northern and southern regions of Israel that have large Arab populations. "Then just run away from Israel. The [Jewish] state has always been a demographic act of chutzpah since it was created [in 1948] with 600,000 Jews" among many millions of Arabs in the Middle East.

He adds: "This land is not real estate. It is the body of the nation. I do not relinquish my fingers." Asked if he believes it was given by God to the Jews, Eitam replies: "If we don't believe that, then who are we? It would make me just another colonialist who took the lands of someone else. This land is ours, and if it is not ours, then none of it is ours."

But Gissin says it is those Israelis who want to keep the settlements in Gaza who are out of step with Zionism.

He notes that Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, accepted the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states even though it provided less territory than he wanted for the Jewish state. "The reason Zionism succeeded is because it was always able to adjust to reality and to adjust its intermediate goals to the long-term goal of a Jewish and democratic state for the Jewish people."

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