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Sharon Overture Divides Opposition

A split is emerging among Gaza settlers, as several of their leaders met with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to discuss a proposal to move all 8,000 of them to a coastal strip north of Ashkelon.

The meeting is increasing the isolation of hardcore opponents of Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan who object to the dismantling of any settlements and any negotiations with the Israeli premier. Sharon’s effort to negotiate a deal comes as American Jewish right-wing groups are stepping up their joint efforts to stop the planned Israeli pullout from Gaza.

Next week a mission sponsored by real estate mogul Irving Moskowitz, best known for his efforts to buy properties for Jews in predominantly Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, is set to visit Gush Katif, the bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza, in a show of support for those fighting to remain in the area.

Gush Katif leaders opposed to Sharon’s offer visited New York this week to raise money and organize support for sinking the disengagement plan, which is scheduled to start in July. They spoke Tuesday at a forum organized by two activist organizations opposed to the pullout, Americans for a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America.

The New York meeting took place just a few hours after a delegation of Gush Katif residents, including three local authority heads, met Sharon to discuss a proposal to transfer all Gaza settlements to the Nitzanim dunes located between the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, as well as financial compensation.

The Gaza Regional Council opposes disengagement, but said it would support Sharon’s plan to move settlers to the Nitzanim area, assuming the proposal involves the relocation of all the 21 settlements as a single entity.

The developments seemed to indicate a rift within the Gush Katif community, between a more moderate group willing to negotiate with the government, and hardliners bent on resisting any entreaties that could undermine efforts to bolster the opposition to the Gaza disengagement.

Sharon is expected to meet with President Bush next week and to ask for some American financial support for the Gaza withdrawal, which is supposed to start in July. Sharon said he would visit the area upon his return.

The hardliners will be getting a boost next week, with the arrival of Moskowitz’s mission. Construction at Moskowitz-connected sites repeatedly has sparked unrest and worldwide protests, including the 1997 opening of an archaeological tunnel near the Temple Mount that led to battles in which 76 people died.

Moskowitz’s delegation will include leaders of the ZOA and Americans for a Safe Israel, as well as a 200-member Orthodox congregational union, the National Council of Young Israel.

Tuesday night, about 100 people showed up to an Upper West Side synagogue to hear from Gush Katif leaders and supporters who oppose negotiations with Sharon.

Attendees heard from Moshe Saperstein, an New-York-born resident of Gush Katif who lost an arm in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and two fingers in a Palestinian attack in 2002. He told the crowd that the Gush Katif residents were motivated to stay by a dedication to protecting Israel, and because of the “divine protection” that has spared their lives since the beginning of the current intifada in 2000.

“People ask me what happened to Sharon,” he said, referring to the prime minister’s sudden embrace of territorial withdrawal. “I majored in English, not in abnormal psychology.”

Dror Vanunu, a Gush Katif resident who acts as a press spokesman for the community, proudly announced that only eight families out of the estimated 1,700 had accepted a government financial compensation package. Moreover, he said, supporters, including five Knesset members, were actually moving to the area.

Several opponents of the disengagement plan blasted the residents who agreed to meet with Sharon.

Morton Klein, the ZOA leader taking part in Moskowitz’s mission, told the Forward that the residents who met with Sharon only spoke for themselves and that the vast majority of the settlers were opposed to any compromise.

“The ZOA is against the forced deportation of Jews because they are Jews from Jewish land,” he said. “It would be a historic mistake.”

Helen Freedman, executive director of American for a Safe Israel, said that Sharon’s latest proposal was merely a publicity stunt to cover up his “despicable, illegal and immoral” decision.

“He would love to buy them off just like he bought votes in the Knesset to pass his budget and oppose a referendum [on the Gaza withdrawal plan],” she told the Forward. “But he can’t buy the people from Gush Katif, and I am pretty sure he knows it.”

A plan to move 450 families to Nitzanim, a small beachside community between Ashdod and Ashkelon, was first proposed by Disengagement Authority head Yonathan Bassi on March 1.

At the Tuesday meeting with Sharon, settlers discussed a more comprehensive proposal and financial compensation. The Gush Katif delegation expressed “cautious optimism.”

Another meeting between the prime minister and settlers is scheduled to take place next week.

In recent weeks, Likud lawmakers, including Uzi Landau and Moshe Feiglin, reportedly visited the United States in order to mobilize opposition to the Gaza disengagement plan. Landau took part in a Brooklyn meeting last month, organized by Chabad leaders, “to coordinate rabbinic and organizational efforts to impede the planned Gaza withdrawal,” according to a report in the New York-based Jewish Press.

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