Gaza Settlers See Evacuation Plan As Looming Catastrophe

By Mati Milstein

Published July 09, 2004, issue of July 09, 2004.
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NEVEH DEKALIM, Gaza — While politicians and the media debate the threat of violent resistance from settlers when the army comes to evacuate them, residents of this settlement in southern Gaza say they remain convinced that day never will come.

The morning after an Israeli army outpost was blown up near here by Palestinian militants — the same day that four Qassam rockets fell on the Negev city of Sderot, killing two — settlers here were vowing they would resist the evacuation efforts with all their might, but simultaneously were insisting they never would raise a hand against Israeli soldiers.

“I don’t agree with the evacuation and I don’t agree with the use of violence,” said Shoshana Akhrak, a mother of three. “But really I don’t even think about the evacuation. Come on, you really think it will happen? It’s absurd. I can’t even imagine it. I don’t want to believe it.”

Then, expressing an ambivalence typical of most of those interviewed, Akhrak said in her next breath: “There will certainly be a war. If I’d take away your most valued possession, you wouldn’t get mad? You wouldn’t fight?”

Framed by palm trees and windswept beachscapes, the settlement of Neveh Dekalim, seat of the Gaza Coast Regional Council, is reminiscent of Florida — apart, that is, from the constant traffic of armored vehicles; the infantrymen ambling around, licking ice cream bars; and the rooftops of Palestinian Khan Yunis, visible just beyond the eastern line of houses.

A large cloth banner on the front of the regional council building borrows the famous quote from Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball coach Tal Brody, following his team’s landmark 1977 victory against CSKA Moscow: “We are on the map, and we will stay on the map!”

Settlers responded rhetorically when asked how they would react on September 1, 2005, the day Israeli security forces begin removing the settlers who have not already left their homes. “Ask a girl how she will react when she is being raped,” one settler after another replied.

Younger residents in particular voiced opposition to violence. “When they come to take me out of my house, I’ll sit down on the floor and I won’t go. But I won’t hit them, because I’m not one of those fanatics,” said Miriam Ben-Hemo, 24, of nearby Bedolah. “The army is part of us. It’s our brothers. It’s who protects us. Why should we strike out at those who are protecting us?” she said.

For many, however, the question remained unanswerable. “How can I possibly know what I will do?” said “Itzik,” a longtime resident of Tel Katifa who asked not to be quoted by name. “You can never prepare for such an eventuality. No one can know what he’ll do at the critical moment, because no one has ever experienced this before.”

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other officials involved in planning the evacuation believe settlers may gather by the thousands at evacuation points to oppose the operation forcefully, according to Yediot Aharonot. Some fear that the violence could include live gunfire, leading to pitched battles between Jewish settlers and Jewish soldiers. Reportedly the prime minister’s national security council is considering setting up detention camps to hold violent settlers who refuse to be evacuated.

Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gush Katif council, said settlers could not predict with certainty how they will react. He said he personally would not let security forces lay a hand on him but emphasized that, as an Israeli army officer, he never would use violence against Israeli soldiers. Still, he called the evacuation a potential “catastrophe” for Israeli society and said that hundreds of thousands of Israelis would stream into Gush Katif in an effort to prevent the evacuation, leading to potential disaster.

“People will come through the fields; they will come via the sea if they have to,” Sternberg said.

According to an evacuation plan submitted by the army to Mofaz, troops would be responsible for sealing off the concerned settlement areas for a period prior to evacuation to prevent the infiltration of outside supporters.

On June 28, Prime Minister Sharon hinted that settlers who use violence would receive reduced compensation payments for their evacuated homes.

“Whoever hits soldiers or police, harms them, or follows orders now being sounded that call for resisting the disengagement should know this carries a price. It won’t be ignored and we will take action against such a person,” Sharon said, according to Ha’aretz.

David Wilder, a Hebron resident known as a leading spokesman for West Bank settlers, said that “violent resistance” is legitimate. “Anyone arriving to expel men, women and children from their homes must be willing to accept the consequences of their actions. People will not sit quietly by, as sheep being led to slaughter,” Wilder said.

When asked what kind of resistance Israeli security forces can expect from settlers, Wilder told the Forward: “Why reveal all the cards now? Let’s leave something to look forward to — surprise, surprise.”

Gush Katif residents insist they are different from the settlers in Hebron, who often are described as extremists.

“Hebron’s Jews are seen by the media, unjustifiably in my opinion, as tending towards conflict with the state authorities. We are not perceived that way,” Sternberg said. “This is a different sort of population.”

Nevertheless, Sternberg warned: “This won’t be a kids’ game. It will be a catastrophe, a national disaster the level of which Israel has never before experienced. It will smash the society, the army, to pieces. It could lead to civil war.

“The people of the Land of Israel know the boundaries. They will not raise a fist or a weapon against a soldier,” Sternberg said. “However, the problem will be with all the hundreds of thousands who will come here from outside [Gush Katif]…. On the fringes, there will always be someone who will screw around.”

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