From settler to soldier, the faces of Israelis touched by Gaza pullout

Everyone I met on a recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories had an opinion on Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip:

• Bus driver: against, as he believes Jews have a religious claim to Gaza;

• Intelligence expert: for, but angry that none of the heads responsible for creating the Gaza settlements in the first place have rolled;

• Hotel clerk: against, as she feels it is tantamount to rewarding Palestinian violence;

• Jerusalem shopowner: for, as he calls the religious claim to Gaza "weak," and the cost in lives, money, and security "too great."

Polls indicate a majority of Israelis support the disengagement. My own instincts tell me that expecting Israelis to continue defending 8,000 settlers living among nearly 1.5 million Palestinians is, at best, counterintuitive, at worst, not in the best interests of a strong Israel - or of the Palestinians.

Eight days on the ground there served to harden my conviction that Israel's security should be at the forefront of any Middle East negotiations. But it also exposed me to the human factor. Talking face to face with those directly involved crystallized the concerns of those who hold points of view, making them easier to understand.

As part of a group of Canadian journalists on a trip designed to give us firsthand experience of the political and cultural landscape in Israel, I met Israeli and Palestinian officials, journalists, and academics, as well as others whose professions were related neither to policy nor to the media.

But there was one person we nearly didn't meet. Our trip into Gaza to meet with settlers in Gush Katif was foiled both by a nearby suicide bombing, which took five lives, and government concerns about antidisengagement demonstrators staging sit-ins inside Gaza.

But a Gush Katif settler, Laurence Beziz, agreed to come out and have lunch with us. Tearful, rather than intractable and strident, she told us her story.

This mother of four had come to Israel from France 25 years previously with her boyfriend (now her husband), a Tunisian Jew. For 20 years the family has lived in a settlement, running their agriculture business. (In Gaza, settlers have reclaimed desert and developed greenhouse farms worth $100 million per yearin exports.)

Ms.Beziz's descriptions of their community, and the prospect of packing it all up - "the destruction of what we've been building for years" - caused her to break down. She called it nothing short of "betrayal."

Beziz was there, she reminded us, because of appeals from the Israeli government. The incentives given back then were both romantic (to help settle land to which Jews have a religious connection), and economic (the settlements have always been highly subsidized by the government). She says that what's happening now - the disengagement - seems like a big "never mind" from the government.

Unlike some other settlers we talked with, Beziz did not believe it likely there would be a last minute reprieve - from God or the Knesset. Nor did she plan to resist by means other than democratic. "I do not want to raise a hand to a soldier," she said. But she explained she will wait for an Israeli soldier to come to her home. "I want him to tell me to leave. I want to look him in the eyes when he tells me."

After leaving Beziz, we met Susie, American-born but in Israel for more than 30 years. She took us on a tour of her bucolic community, Netiv Haasara, which looks out over, but is not in, Gaza.

Watching what the Gaza settlers were facing, Susie had a sense of déjà vu, having been forced to relocate in 1982 - along with her entire community - from a Sinai settlement to their current location. Recently, she said, mortar shells had landed near her house, and she feared what the future would bring once the settlers and the Israeli army abandoned Gaza. The Canadian in me had difficulty grasping the idea of daily threats.

Hours after we left Susie, a mortar shell fired from Gaza landed in Netiv Haasara, killing one resident, 22-year-old Dana Galkovitch.

The soldiers whose job it will be to force settlers to abandon Gaza are no more stereotypical than Beziz herself.

One of them is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem, and author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East." American-born and in his 50s, Michael Oren has been called up as a reservist to remove settlers from their homes.

"This will be a miserable assignment," he said, though he added he supports the disengagement. "I feel it's absolutely necessary to maintain an Israeli national consensus about our borders, and to ensure the continuation of a solid Jewish majority in Israel."

Though his son was wounded last September, shot while arresting a Hamas leader (he is fine now), Oren's fears are less about safety than the potential photo-op for Hamas.

"The Palestinians will undoubtedly try to shoot at us as we evacuate, to substantiate the myth that we are running away under a hail of Hamas gunfire." He added, "Dirty work, but somebody's got to do it."

I choose to hope that if I am fortunate enough to return to Israel, I'll meet the same people, and see that the dirty work, and sacrifices, have given them - and their Palestinians neighbors - more benefit than regret.

Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer. She recently visited Israel on a trip sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee, an Israel advocacy group.

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