- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

ELEI SINAI, Gaza Strip - When the Israeli disengagement reaches Arik Harpaz’s door-step this month, it won’t be the first time he’s left this suburban settlement just inside Gaza’s northern border with Israel.

After his 19-year-old daughter, Liron, was killed by a Palestinian gunman who infiltrated the settlement in October 2001, he moved with his wife and surviving children to the nearby Israeli city of Ashkelon to escape the violence.

Ten months later, the family returned home.

“The return to Elei Sinai strengthened us,” Mr. Harpaz says. “Her blood is soaked in the ground of Elei Sinai. For me, to abandon Elei Sinai would be as if it were murdering Liron all over again.”

With 8,500 Israeli settlers living in and around more than 1 million Palestinians, there is an easy logic to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw on Wednesday from the Gaza Strip after 38 years.

Israelis have until midnight Tuesday to leave voluntarily. On Wednesday, the remaining settlers will be evicted by the Israeli military.

But for settlers who have spent their best years building homes and communities in Gaza, the forced uprooting of their lives will never make sense.

In their eyes, the government is trading away their houses and businesses in a gamble that is more likely to encourage Palestinian militants than help the peace process.

“The message to the Palestinians is that terror is victorious,” Mr. Harpaz says. “It’s a flawed message.”

Once celebrated by Mr. Sharon and government officials as the new Israeli pioneers, Jewish settlers received generous public grants to relocate themselves on the front lines.

Now they feel betrayed and embittered by a leader who they claim misled them.

“We feel disgraced,” says Itzik Amergui, an herb farmer who founded the settlement of Ganei Tal some 30 years ago.

“We feel like second-class citizens. We feel like the government is betraying us, like we were dog excrement.”

There are 21 settlements spread over the length of the coastal strip of sand dunes.

Some hug the border with Israel as if Israel were spilling over into Gaza, while others are islands stuck deep into the strip’s Palestinian population.

But most lie within Gush Katif, the name for the settlement enclave in southern Gaza.

The main occupation in the settlement enclave is agriculture, and the bloc of communities is named after the harvest season. Farmers here grow high-end crops for export, accounting for about 15 percent of Israeli agricultural sales abroad.

The first settlers to come here arrived in the 1970s at the behest of Israel’s center-left Labor government to establish farms in Gaza’s barren sand dunes.

Those who arrived were attracted by a career motive in addition to pure ideology, explaining why many of the Gaza residents are less extreme in their politics, compared with counterparts hailing from the West Bank hilltops.

“People [who] came here initially came here not out of ideology. It was defined as agricultural, so anyone who came here knew he would work,” says Sara Snir, a settler.

West Bank settlers’ “outlook is conquer, consolidate, and whatever comes next, comes next. Their ideology isn’t higher, but it’s a different approach.”

A drive around Gush Katif reveals row after row of greenhouses, many of which have been left untouched with the evacuation days away.

Some refuse to believe that the government will be able to extract the settlers, while others have been holding out in the hope of getting compensation from the World Bank so the greenhouses can be transferred to the Palestinians.

The flip side of the bustling agricultural business has been the enormous cost of defending the Gaza settlements.

Surrounded by 1.4 million Palestinians, they have been the most frequent targets throughout the uprising of nearly five years. The Web site of Gush Katif counts 5,900 mortar and rocket attacks.

Roads lined with barbed wire, tanks and pillboxes link the settlements to Israel and detachments of soldiers are stationed inside the communities.

It is a burden that the prime minister, Mr. Sharon, says is too costly. But the Gaza settlers see themselves as the first line of defense against the Palestinians.

If Israel evacuates the settlements, they argue, it will only bring rocket fire closer to the heartland of the country.

Indeed, a mortar shell recently fell alongside the Snirs’ daughter without exploding. But not even that prompts the family to acknowledge that it might be better to live somewhere else.

“It might give me personal peace of mind, but it won’t give the country peace,” Mrs. Snir says.

In the final weeks before the evacuation, the settlements have been sealed off from the rest of Israel. Residents can come and go as they please, but guests need special permission.

To enter the settlement bloc, automobiles must pass through three roadblocks. Police with handheld computers check the identities of motorists.

It is but one sign of the slowly changing reality signaling the inevitability of their eviction.

The television news shows footage of soldiers practicing for the evacuation.

Despite restrictions on travel to Gaza, outsiders from the West Bank have managed to sneak into Gaza to make a final stand. And at the same time, many settlers have packed their bags and moved out.

“Here, inside, you continue to live your day-by-day routine. You can’t cry and be sad. You have to life your life as much as possible to the end,” says Keren Lax. “I am waiting for a miracle. I don’t know if it will come, or where it will come from.”

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