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Jewish settlers move to Gaza Strip to disrupt withdrawal plan

NEVEH DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—Rivka Namir, 42, moved to the Israeli settlement of Neveh Dekalim in the Gaza Strip 16 years ago when her husband, Sodi, was a medical student.

On March 27 of this year, two of Namir's siblings, Moshe Elia, 37, and Ruth Greenglick, 40, joined her there with their spouses and 12 children—just as the Israeli government was finalizing plans to remove the Namirs, their nine children and all other Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

The Elias and Greenglicks are part of a wave of 600 families who've moved to the area in the past three months, in part to protest the withdrawal.

Israel's plan to evacuate the settlers has the backing of the Bush administration but has drawn heavy opposition from the Israeli right. Protesters have launched widespread demonstrations and blocked roads, and some are calling for soldiers to refuse orders or even desert.

Members of Namir's family are protesting the plan on a more personal level, moving into the Gaza Strip to assert their belief that the land belongs to Israel, not the Palestinians.

"It is part of Israel that is given to us in the Bible," Greenglick said.

Debbie Rosen, a spokeswoman for Gush Katif, a large settlement bloc encompassing Neveh Dekalim, echoes that sentiment. Rosen speaks of sites such as Gerar, which was mentioned in the Bible's book of Genesis and is believed by some to be located in the Gaza Strip.

Large signs posted at the entrance to Gush Katif proclaim "Kfar Darom Shall Not Fall Again." It's a reference to the Israeli settlement that was built on the site of an Israeli village that was evacuated during Israel's war of independence in 1948.

The Gaza Strip is a small area of land, just 140 square miles. In 1948 it was slated to become part of a Palestinian state but came under Egyptian control. In 1967 it was conquered by Israel.

Around 1.3 million Palestinians and an estimated 8,000 Israeli settlers now live there. According to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, 15 percent of the land is controlled by settlements and 5 percent is controlled by the Israel Defense Forces.

Many Palestinians passionately believe the land is theirs, not Israel's, and have repeatedly attacked the settlements, making their defense difficult and costly, and prompting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to propose withdrawing from the area.

Moshe and Tova Elia moved to the Gaza Strip from the West Bank settlement of Beit El, located north of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Moshe Elia is convinced that their presence will help thwart the government's disengagement plan, he said, "because we are making a great effort against it."

The Elias disrupted their children's lives and left behind a large two-story house close to where they work to rent a two-and-a-half-bedroom home in Gush Katif.

But it's all worth it, said Tova. "It's a wonderful feeling that we're making an effort for something that we believe in," she said.

Greenglick, her husband, Tzvi, and their five children moved into Namir's guest apartment after deciding that protesting wasn't enough. "There was enough talk," Greenglick said. "Now was time to take action."

They left their home in Ranaana, a quiet city north of Tel Aviv that's remained largely untouched during the last four-and-a-half years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Greenglick says she wanted "to be part of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) not just in pleasure but in their pain." When they moved in, she said, "Half the neighborhood came out singing and dancing."

Her brother Moshe Elia said their actions created a ripple effect across Israeli society, which he hopes will help halt the disengagement plan. He points out with pride that his sister's move from Ranaana became the talk of the neighborhood. Greenglick said that while the reactions of friends and family ranged from puzzlement to pride, everyone believes they are courageous.

According to Rosen, the 600 families moving to the area over the past three months boosted the settler population to 9,000. There were 7,500 residents in 2003, according to Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

"Today, three families just arrived from Jerusalem and we expect more during the Passover holiday," she said. "I don't know if it will stop disengagement, but it certainly says something."

Rosen claims the disengagement plan is up in the air, saying that residents haven't received information on when or where they are supposed to move. She points out that the Ministry of Education has allowed her to register her children in schools in Gush Katif.

Rivka Namir, who spoke from her living room below a display of mortar shell and Kassam rocket parts that had landed near her house, is thrilled that her siblings have joined her and her husband, who now heads a medical clinic. She joked that she should send a thank-you note to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for bringing them all together. She described their arrival as a morale booster for the community. "It's a good feeling for the whole community that they took their children and moved here," she said.

Namir also described the settlers' sense of isolation from the rest of Israeli society, which, according to all polls, firmly supports the disengagement plan. "We feel we're not wanted and no one wants to hear our thoughts. ... The radio and television are against us."

The Israeli army, wary of an attempt to fill the Gaza Strip settlements with opponents of disengagement, on March 17 forbade Israeli citizens from moving to the area. Before disengagement starts, the army is expected to declare the area a closed military zone, with entrance to non-residents forbidden. Families such as the Elias and Greenglicks planned their move well in advance and were able to officially change their addresses before the deadline.

Down the road, in the settlement Pe'at Sadeh, the leadership has already come to an agreement with the Israeli government to move as a community to a village inside Israel proper. Vicki Sabaj, a 14-year resident of the settlement, is willing to go along with the leadership's decision, but still opposes the plan. "This pulling out is against all my beliefs ... because we're not getting anything in return," Sabaj said.

Sabaj also points to apparent confusion in the disengagement process. "I have no idea what's the plan, what's the compensation, nothing has been done," she said. "People are very frustrated and depressed."

Despite these claims, the government seems to be proceeding with its plans. The committee in charge of compensating settlers approved its first application last week and says it's set to begin approving hundreds more.

Haim Altman, the spokesman for the disengagement authority, says that the amount of compensation is linked to many factors, including home ownership, current salary and time of residence. Furthermore, families can log on to the authority's Web site and figure out how much compensation they're due.

Recently, Sharon met with 12 settlement leaders to discuss a plan to move the Gush Katif settlements to an area of sand dunes called Nitzanim, south of the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon.

Namir, however, doesn't believe the government will have an easy time. "There are people who have invested everything here," she said. "How can you expect them to get on a bus and leave?"

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(Churgin is a special correspondent.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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