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Israel's planned withdrawal could be a small step toward peace

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—Someday soon, no one is quite sure when, the knock will come on Rachel Saperstein's door and Israeli soldiers will tell the 64-year-old Jewish grandmother and her husband that it's time to go. Time to leave behind the fruit trees and the sweeping view of the Mediterranean. Time to say goodbye to the grapes, the garden and the very idea of a Jewish nation running along the coast from Lebanon to Egypt.

Although the Sapersteins are hoping that a last-minute miracle will spare their hillside home from destruction, Israel has every intention of pressing ahead next month with its historic plan to raze every Jewish home in the Gaza Strip and turn over the land it's occupied for nearly 40 years to the Palestinians.

Coupled with last fall's death of Yasser Arafat, Israel's so-called disengagement plan to shut down the settlements and uproot their nearly 9,000 Jews has the potential to transform the war-weary region and create a new atmosphere for negotiations.

"If it works, you have a chance to use this as a platform to rebuild peacemaking," said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East who was instrumental in brokering several regional peace deals. "It might not produce peace, but it may be the end of the war."

More than any other move Israel has taken in recent years to end decades of conflict, the plan to abandon all its Gaza Strip settlements and four in the West Bank has sparked an emotional internal debate that has some questioning whether the gambit will save the Jewish nation or begin a process that will destroy it.

The status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been a source of contention since Israel became a nation in 1948 and thousands of Palestinian refugees flooded into the areas to escape conflict. After Israel wrested control of the two areas in the 1967 Six Day War—launched to pre-empt an Arab military buildup—it embarked on a contentious campaign to move Jewish settlers into them, to bolster its security and stake a claim to the biblical lands.

While the United Nations and U.S. government have consistently criticized the settlement movement, Israel has pressed ahead and helped hundreds of thousands of its citizens set up homes, neighborhoods and towns on occupied Palestinian land.

Two years ago, the notion of Israel unilaterally razing any settlements would have seemed implausible. The nation was caught in a cycle of violence that swung between Palestinian suicide bombings and fierce Israeli counter-attacks.

With both sides tiring of the conflict that had taken some 3,000 lives, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced in December 2003 that he was through waiting for what he considered a reasonable offer to negotiate from the Palestinians and was prepared to shut down some settlements in a bid to pull the vulnerable Israelis out of the crosshairs.

Sharon's vow was all the more surprising since the veteran military commander was an architect of the strategy that defied international condemnation and placed thousands of Israeli citizens in settlements throughout the occupied Palestinian lands. Israeli settlers felt betrayed by the man they viewed as a stalwart ally and saw his policy reversal as the first step in a strategic misstep that would destroy their nation.

Sharon pressed ahead, overcame resistance within his political party, won over most of the Israeli public and set the stage for August's withdrawal.

He offered settler families up to $300,000 each to relocate. With less than a month to go, about 40 percent of the 1,700 families affected have accepted the deal—and more are coming forward as the deadline approaches.

The die-hard settlers, many of them orthodox Jews who believe God gave the land to them, aren't leaving without a fight. Some have sought to put a biblical curse on the prime minister and are preparing to wear concentration camp uniforms when they're forced from their homes.

Sitting on her couch with a sweeping view of the Mediterranean behind her and classical music playing softly in the background, Saperstein compared her plight to those of Jews under Nazi rule who were shot, starved and shipped off to their deaths by the millions.

"We are being put into a Warsaw Ghetto," said Saperstein, who moved to the Gaza Strip with her husband eight years ago after their daughter was wounded by a Palestinian suicide bomber on a Jerusalem bus. "It is a step-by-step destruction of a people."

The shutdown is slated to begin the third week of August, right after Jews finish an annual three-week mourning period over the destruction of Jerusalem's first two temples, first in 586 B.C. and later in A.D. 70.

On Aug. 15, the government will give each family that's still in the 25 settlements 48 hours to move. After that, soldiers and police officers will move in by the tens of thousands to remove those who stay behind, clearing two settlements each day. Working around the clock, except during the Sabbath, the military expects the process to take about three weeks.

The military has color-coded homes according to who has weapons, who's likely to resist and who has lost relatives in the conflict. Those charged with removing recalcitrant settlers won't be allowed to carry firearms and will have permission to strike holdouts on the thighs with batons only if they're met with violent resistance.

Moving companies have been hired to pack up the homes of those who refuse to leave, while the families will receive temporary housing in hotels and government-rented apartments in Israel.

Once the families and their property are out, the military is expected to bring in its 50-ton D-9 Caterpillars—the same kind of bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian homes—to raze the settlements and ensure that demonstrators don't try to move in.

While a few settlements are expected to offer little resistance, several others, including Neve Dekalim and the small West Bank community of Sa-Nur, could prove problematic.

After the settlers are gone, Israel will shut down its military outposts and turn over the land to the Palestinians, a process that could stretch until early October, if not longer.

The plan is fraught with potential pitfalls.

Palestinian militants could attack soldiers and settlers during the process, which almost certainly would trigger a massive Israeli military invasion. Radical Israelis could try to halt the shutdown by sabotaging military vehicles, blocking roads or even attacking soldiers.

After Israel pulls out, the burden will fall on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to curb militant attacks on Israel and begin transforming the depressed territory into the foundation for a new nation.

Israel is likely to demand that Abbas halt extremists' missile and rocket attacks. But recent deadly clashes between the Palestinian police force and Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip have cast doubt on whether he can do so.

For his part, Abbas wants the pullout to reinvigorate stalled peace talks with Israel that could lead to further settlement shutdowns in the West Bank. But Sharon has made it clear that he's loath to go much farther.

"There will be no second disengagement," Sharon said earlier this month while visiting a West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem. "To the extent that the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist organizations and undertake another whole series of steps it will be possible to discuss the road map" to peace.

That prospect has left a sour taste in the mouths of many Palestinian leaders, who've been kept in the dark about most of the Gaza-pullout plans, even though they'll be called on to assume responsibility for the land fairly quickly.

Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said Israel was standing in the way of needed economic reform for Gaza, including proposals to reopen its airport, and was preparing to isolate the 1.3 million Palestinians behind an impenetrable wall.

"Gaza disengagement does not mean an end to the occupation in Gaza," Tarazi said. "They're making the prison less crowded, but they're not closing the prison."

Even with all the caveats and concerns, Ross said, the withdrawal could be a new catalyst for change—if both sides are willing and able to see it as a small, but significant, step on the longer road ahead.

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

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