Israel offers settlers a land swap

Sharon hopes a plan to move Gaza settlers to land north of the Gaza Strip will ease resistance to leaving.

The Nitzanim sand dunes just north of this Israeli seaside city are one of the largest unspoiled stretches of coastline left in Israel.

But for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the land tract may hold the key to defusing the resistance of some 8,500 Jewish settlers opposed to his plan to dismantle the Gaza Strip's 20 settlements and hand them over to the Palestinians later this summer.

As the seeming inevitability of the planned evacuation seeped into Israel's consciousness in recent weeks, the government began negotiating with settlers on a plan to move entire communities of Gaza evacuees as far as 30 miles up the coast to new towns that would be established on the edge of the Nitzanim dunes.

Though they remain opposed to the Gaza disengagement in principle, settler supporters of the Nitzanim plan believe the shock of the displacement can be eased by reassembling their communities amid the grassy sand landscape reminiscent of the virgin real estate they once found in Gaza.

"We're asking to get back what we had,'' says Aharon Hazut, leader of one of the communities in Gaza's Gush Katif settlement bloc. "I have a house, give me a house. I have a lawn, give me a lawn. I have a tree, give me a tree. I have a business, give me a business.''

Jewish settler leaders have called on their faithful to actively resist an evacuation which they have branded as immoral. That has spurred concern in Israel about widespread unrest and even violent clashes.

Support for a withdrawal has slipped, with a new poll finding that 56 percent of Israeli Jews back the plan, down from 62 percent in February.

On Monday, antiwithdrawal activists closed down 39 road junctions across Israel by staging sit-ins and burning tires, the Ha'aretz newspaper reported. The government deployed some 4,000 policemen who arrested 292 demonstrators. Vice Premier Shimon Peres warned Wednesday that police would respond more forcefully if protesters continued to demonstrate.

Violence also flared at Gush Katif Wednesday as Hamas militants fired four mortar shells at the settlement. Israeli aircraft responded quickly in the first such strike since a February cease-fire.

By dangling an attractive exit strategy for the settlers, it is hoped the Nitzanim plan isolates the influence of extremists. On Wednesday, the Israeli government said some 426 families had expressed interest in the plan.

Under legislation passed by Israel's Knesset in February, the average Israeli family living in the Gaza Strip will be entitled to some $370,000 in compensation, an offer most settlers have rejected as pittance that won't allow them to purchase comparable homes inside Israel. Middle-aged settlers like Hazut wonder if they'll ever find work again.

The Nitzanim proposal, which is still being finalized by a government panel that oversees development nationwide, is expected to offer evacuees one-tenth acre plots in a new locality, plus cash to finance the construction of new homes.

For the government, talk of moving to Nitzanim - plural for "bud'' in Hebrew - has revealed the first signs of a division among a community of Jewish settlers that has shown a united front lobbying against the disengagement.

"There was a theory that [settlers] would get a check, and they would find a place to live. Turns out that the most important thing is to stay together,'' says Avi Drexler, a former director of Israel's land authority who has helped mediate between the settlers and the government.

"As a result of the Nitzanim plan, in Gush Katif there's a fight between the pragmatists," he adds, "and a group of ideologues. That fight helps the government. It lowers the flame there.''

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, chairman of the authority that regulates land usage, supports the Nitzanim plan, adding that settlers wouldn't even speak with the government until recently. "If they want to create settlements within [Israel] we will provide them with good sections to do it," he said.

In the Gush Katif settlement of Neve Dekalim, the homes look out onto manicured lawns and flowering shrubs set against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea's hazy azure. Here, the seat of the Gaza settlement regional council, mistrust of the government runs deep.

"We won't fall into line with those who are uprooting us," says Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the settler council. "There is a minority which is still meeting with the prime minister. They are making a mistake."

The plan is not without precedent. When Israel handed back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, the government set aside blocs of land to compensate evacuees.

"It shouldn't be a zero-sum argument,'' says David Newman, a geography professor at Israel's Ben Gurion University. "I may be against settlements, but if I believed in what they believed in, I would want something to soften the blow.''

Inside Israel, the plan faces a chorus of detractors. Even though the new towns are not planned on the area of the Nitzanim nature preserve, environmentalists say they are concerned that building adjacent to the dunes will kill off dozens of species of plants and animals. And municipal officials in Ashkelon - a city of about 105,000 - are worried they will be forced to donate their land near Nitzanim to create an independent district for the evacuees.

"It's not a viable sustainable entity,'' said Alan Marcus, a municipal spokesman. "If they do move here, and they do cut it off, we are going to have a lot of social problems.''

But Hazut said the residents of Gush Katif aren't interested in assimilation. The only way the settlers will recover from the disruption of moving, he says, is if they can create schools, youth clubs, and businesses by themselves. Otherwise they might as well join the extremists to make Gaza the settlers' Alamo.

"People are liable to realize that they're losing their world," he says, "and might diverge from the democratic rules of the game."

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