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Jewish settlers at Kfar Darom determined to fight

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip—The white billboard on the main Israeli settler road into the occupied Gaza Strip is as much a warning as a statement: "Kfar Darom will not fall again!"

The 400 Israelis living in this historic community that's been abandoned and rebuilt twice before have no intention of letting Kfar Darom be demolished—by its own government, no less—for a third time.

Israeli soldiers plan to do just that, however, as part of a plan aimed at enhancing Israeli security by shutting down all 21 of the nation's Gaza Strip settlements, which have been hard to defend, beginning next week.

Kfar Darom could prove to be one of the most difficult places to uproot.

While nearly 60 percent of the 1,700 Israeli families whom the government initiative affects plan to leave willingly, not one of the 73 Kfar Darom families has accepted the relocation package.

Instead, dozens of activists intent on fending off the government's plans have filtered into the closed military zone and taken up residence in two tent cities at Kfar Darom.

"This fight is not against Kfar Darom, it's against Israel," settlement resident Asher Mivtzari said. "Kfar Darom is the south wall of Jerusalem."

Residents and activists already are taking a stand. On Sunday night, hundreds of demonstrators temporarily prevented the Israeli military from removing a trailer from the settlement.

"We will sacrifice for the land of Israel," said 27-year-old Joel Dahan, a West Bank settler who helped found and establish Kfar Darom's first tent city last month with his wife and two children.

Of all 25 Israeli settlements slated for closure in the coming weeks, including four in the West Bank, perhaps none has as much history as Kfar Darom. A Jewish farmer bought 65 acres for a plantation in Kfar Darom in 1930 while the area was under British control, but it was abandoned a few years later during internal unrest.

In 1946, two years before Israel became a nation, a small group of religious Jews set up a kibbutz on the land. Residents and soldiers defended Kfar Darom for three months during the 1948 war but were ordered to retreat, and the Egyptian army won control of the entire Gaza Strip.

An Israeli military unit occupied the land in 1970, three years after the nation occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six Day War.

Over the last five years, Kfar Darom has been a favored target for Palestinian militants. In November 2000, a roadside bomb destroyed an armored school bus that was leaving the settlement, killing two adults and injuring nine others, including five children. A year later, a mortar round fired into Kfar Darom from the Palestinian village right outside its fortified walls killed an Israeli soldier.

Hana Barat is one of the settlement's most outspoken casualties of the turbulent times. Paralyzed from the waist down by Palestinian gunfire in November 2002, Barat has no intention of leaving her home willingly.

"Tel Aviv is ours. Jerusalem is ours. Kfar Darom is ours," said the middle-aged mother of eight, who lives in a specially designed one-story house with wide doors and halls for her wheelchair.

Barat keeps personal vestiges of the conflict like souvenirs: The bloodstained shirt her daughter was wearing that night in November when a bullet ripped through the little girl's shoulder. A plastic container filled with shrapnel from mortar rounds. The tail end of an anti-tank rocket that landed near her home.

Instead of leaving after the attack, Barat and her husband decided not only to stay, but also to have another child, one whose Hebrew name means "the nation of Israel lives."

Barat looks on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with scorn and dismisses his contention that this plan can help create peace by giving up claims to the Palestinian land and doing more to protect hundreds of thousands of other Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.

How, Barat wonders, can the leader who helped lay the cornerstone of Kfar Darom's synagogue and was a longtime settlement champion be the one ordering them to leave?

"Sharon's answer to terror is to run away, to expel widows and orphans and innocent victims of a war and give our houses to terrorists," Barat said. "Our answer to terror is adding another child to the land of Israel."

Although much of the world views settlers such as Barat as illegal interlopers who've put themselves in the middle of occupied land with 1.3 million Palestinians, she has no interest in how the world sees her.

"I don't care what the world thinks," she said. "We're an independent people. The land of Israel is ours."

These days, Barat's home is crowded with friends, family and new allies in orange shirts, wristbands and hats who have come to support Kfar Darom.

Nearby, dozens of young families have set up a mini-community within the settlement. Known as "The Lovers of Israel," it's a collection of square, one-room tents, a communal kitchen, dining rooms and even a makeshift post office created by the children, who bustle about announcing games and events for the families.

Sitting on a thin foam mattress with a weak fan that was doing little to ward off the desert heat, Dahan said his commitment to Israel's settler movement compelled him to come and help defend Kfar Darom.

"I feel like they're not only taking my home, they are taking half my body," he said.

Like many in Kfar Darom—and despite the determination of the Israeli government—Dahan believes what the billboard says: Kfar Darom will not fall again.

Although the soldiers already have started to dismantle the settlement, Dahan stood in the dirt, sweat dripping from his forehead, and made a firm, if dubious, prediction: "Mark my words. You can come here in two weeks and see that it's been canceled. Sharon's plans have been canceled."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-SETTLEMENT

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050808 MIDEAST SETTLEMENT

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