- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government is offering to move thousands of Jewish settlers en masse from the Gaza Strip to new towns inside Israel in an effort to defuse resistance to Israel’s scheduled withdrawal from the territory.

In recent weeks, settlers and outside lawyers have held talks with the government on a deal to relocate Jewish evacuees to an area near the Nitzanim sand dunes, about 12 miles up the coast from the northern border of the Gaza Strip.

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

“We’re asking to get back what we had,” said Aharon Hazut, 46, the 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,” Mr. Hazut said.

Jewish settler leaders have called on the faithful to actively resist an evacuation, which many consider immoral. Thousands took part in a large protest Monday, bringing rush-hour traffic to a halt by burning tires and lying in front of cars.

Hundreds of the young protesters flooded Israeli courtrooms yesterday after blocking dozens of highways a day before, the most disruptive demonstration yet against the planned summer pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

Extra judges were brought into courtrooms to handle hearings for more than 300 protesters, most of them in their teens and early 20s. Police agreed to release about 130 of them with a ban on similar protests for 60 days.

Settler leaders acknowledged yesterday that 430 families — about 2,000 of the 8,500 settlers living in the Gaza Strip — had already signed forms indicating their preparedness to move to the new seaside community.

Under evacuation legislation passed by Israel’s Knesset in February, the average Israeli family living in the Gaza Strip will be entitled to some $368,000 in compensation, according to Avi Drexler, who has mediated between the settlers and the government.

Most settlers have rejected the offer as a pittance that will barely cover the purchase of a suburban apartment plus the other costs of being uprooted, including the need to find new jobs.

The Nitzanim proposal, which is still being finalized by Israel’s national council for construction and planning, is expected to offer evacuees plots that are one-eighth of an acre in new municipalities plus cash to finance the construction of new homes.

But that choice comes at a price. While agreeing to the plan buys realists the peace of mind that their future homes will be surrounded by neighbors who have experienced the same ordeal, it also signals the abandonment of the fight for Gaza.

For the government, talk of moving to Nitzanim — plural for “sprout” in Hebrew — has revealed the first signs of a division within a community that so far has shown a united front against the disengagement.

“There was a theory that [settlers] would get a check, and they would find a place to live. It turns out that the most important thing is to stay together,” said Mr. Drexler, a former director of Israel’s land authority.

“As a result of the Nitzanim plan, in Gush Katif, there’s a fight between the pragmatists … and a group of ideologues. That fight helps the government. It lowers the flame there.”

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, chairman of the Israeli authority, which regulates land usage, supports the Nitzanim plan, adding that the settlers wouldn’t even speak with the government until a few weeks ago.

Much of the Gaza settler leadership still refuses to join the talks, reflecting a deep mistrust of the government.

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