- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

PEAT SADEH, Gaza Strip — Residents of a small Jewish settlement said yesterday that they have struck a deal to move to a village inside Israel, giving a boost to the government’s contentious Gaza pullout plan by becoming the first community to agree to be evacuated.

Peat Sadeh, a tiny, upscale farming village tucked into the southwest corner of the Gaza Strip about a mile from the Mediterranean Sea, raised the ire of hard-line settler leaders, who are mounting a campaign against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from a part of the West Bank next year.

Mr. Sharon’s hard-line coalition government fell apart over his policy shift a year ago, forcing him to try to reconstitute his team with the dovish Labor Party, his traditional rival.

Early this year, Mr. Sharon abruptly abandoned decades of work for settlement construction and expansion, calling Gaza settlements “untenable” because only 8,200 Israelis live among more than 1 million impoverished Palestinians in the crowded seaside territory.

Israelis have lived well in Gaza, and their settlements always have been a sore point with the Palestinians. In recent years, mortars and rockets fired by militants in Gaza have rained down on the settlers, and infiltration attempts have multiplied.

At Peat Sadeh, affluence is evident in the neat houses and expensive cars parked outside. Residents are farmers and say they do considerable business with Palestinian neighbors.

“Sharon built this community,” said Ella Amin, 39. “He hoped that it would be one of the most beautiful in the area, but the uprising ruined all of our dreams.” Yonatan Bassi, director of the government administration overseeing the Gaza pullout, said the evacuation deal with the residents of Peat Sadeh was reached last week.

He said the settlement’s 20 families, joined by five families from other settlements, would move to Mavkiim, a farming village near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, beginning in March.

Residents said they are leaving reluctantly.

“I’m still against it,” said Vicki Sabaj, 56, referring to the pullout, “but there’s no choice. At least I’ll go together with my friends.” She did not think she would be safer inside Israel. “If I leave, the border moves with me,” she said. Mavkiim is about four miles from the Gaza border.

Although the Peat Sadeh deal is the first under the government’s withdrawal plan, Mr. Bassi said officials are negotiating with a “great number” of settlers willing to leave. He declined to give numbers.

Gaza settler spokesman Eran Sternberg disputed Mr. Bassi’s assertion, saying the vast majority of settlers remain opposed to the pullout.

Meanwhile, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made his strongest appeal yet for an end to Palestinian violence against Israel. Mr. Abbas, the leading candidate in a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, said in a campaign speech:

“We want an independent Palestinian state living in peace, side by side with Israel, and we want the occupation that began in 1967 to end. … The only choice before us is the path of peace.”

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