Anxiety Grows Among Settlers As Sharon Wings Gaza Pullout


By Ofer Shelah

Published April 22, 2005, issue of April 22, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — With less than three months to go before Israel’s scheduled withdrawal from Gaza and no clear plans for the day after, the Cabinet this week authorized the purchase of hundreds of mobile homes to house the 8,000 Jewish settlers to be evacuated.

The mobile-home decision was taken Tuesday during a stormy ministers’ meeting during which Prime Minister Sharon rejected mounting accusations that planning for the Gaza-West Bank withdrawal was moving too slowly.

Such accusations are mounting daily, however, as impatience and anxiety grow among settlers uncertain of their future homes or livelihoods, army commanders unable to provide clear answers to their troops or the settlers, and Palestinian leaders and Bush administration officials unsure of Israel’s diplomatic intentions.

Amid the uncertainty, the government was caught flat-footed this week when Sharon was asked by the head of the disengagement administration, Yonatan Bassi, to postpone the operation’s scheduled July 20 start by three weeks, until after the Ninth of Av fast day commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

“The days between Passover and Tisha B’Av are days in which we mourn destruction and exile,” Bassi wrote to Sharon, explaining that it would be a symbolically unfortunate time to evacuate Jewish settlers from their homes. Sharon reportedly reacted with initial unhappiness to the request but was expected to approve it.

The calendar debacle — some insiders said Bassi, an Orthodox Jew, should have noticed the problem earlier — was indicative of the larger state of confusion. Sharon has successfully removed all the political obstacles in the way of the withdrawal. The army and police have drawn up elaborate plans for the actual evacuation, and this week began simulation exercises to prepare for settler resistance, Palestinian violence and troop disobedience.

Outside the security establishment, however, most bodies in charge of implementing the disengagement are still very much in the dark.

Sharon is aiming to relocate the settlers as intact communities. The proposal appears to have won strong support among settlers and is believed to be lowering the intensity of their opposition. A survey in the daily Yediot Aharonot last week found 64% of settlers willing to consider joint-resettlement plans, while just 10% said they were making personal plans; 20% said they would not willingly evacuate in any circumstance.

Finding sites for the new communities has proved logistically daunting and politically explosive, however. A seaside location near Kibbutz Nitzanim, between Ashkelon and Ashdod, was suggested two weeks ago, but has met with huge opposition from environmentalists. The Nitzanim dunes, Israel’s last undeveloped coastline, are currently a nature reserve, with its own unique fauna. Among the most vocal Knesset opponents of the Nitzanim plan is none other than the prime minister’s son Omri.

As opposition continued, a new name surfaced this week: Palmahim, another seaside kibbutz about 20 miles north of Nitzanim. So far no decision has been made, much less ground broken.

Unhappiness is growing in the army, too. The Southern Command is completing preparations for the evacuation, while the same troops are busy protecting the Gaza settlements, in daily contact with the people they are set to remove, perhaps forcefully, from their homes in three months. Soldiers report deteriorating relationships with settlers. Where once Sabbath dinners and daily gifts of cakes and candy were the norm, they now meet cold stares.

Tempers reached a boil this week when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz visited the largest Gaza settlement, Neveh Dekalim. He was to have met with settlers but was hustled out by bodyguards when settlers began cursing and threatening him.

Sharon himself has largely refused to speak with the settlers, fueling their anger. So far, the prime minister has met with representatives from Gaza settlements only once, and has refrained completely from visiting the area.

Privately, army field commanders complain that Sharon’s perceived detachment puts them under extra pressure. “Not only are we in the front line of engagement with the settlers,” one officer told the Forward, “but we are also the only ones listening to their grievances. People here don’t know where their children will go to school next year or how they will earn their living. The only ones they can take it out on are the troops.”

Nor are those the only uncertainties. It remains unclear how the army will deal with the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of journalists who will enter Gaza once the evacuation begins. Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority is certain of the Palestinians’ ability to maintain quiet as Israel evacuates. Nor has the army mapped out its handling of disengagement in the northern West Bank, home to some of the most militant settlers.

Also uncertain is the fate of Gaza and the northern West Bank after disengagement. Israel has expressed willingness to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinians, but insists that Palestinians first crack down on terrorism; Palestinians complained this week that they were moving against terrorists and collecting weapons, but still had little cooperation from the Israelis. Israelis say the Palestinians are divided on whether or not to cooperate at all.

If the answers are known to Sharon or Bassi, they are not telling. Sharon continues to display an almost cheerful air. Traveling on a new train line from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv last week, he promised that “not a single hare or deer” in the Nitzanim area would be harmed. Nobody has spoken to the deer.

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