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Israel begins to destroy homes as settlers grapple with displacement

BEERSHEVA, Israel—Settlers from Gaza gathered in small groups in the lobby of the Paradise Hotel, recounting the ways they were dragged from their homes and scouring Jewish law books in search of an explanation.

Many of them had refused to accept the government's plans for more permanent housing for them, and so they don't know where they'll live next week.

Israel on Sunday continued to clear out several hundred Jewish settlers who remained in the Gaza Strip and began to demolish emptied homes, preparing to turn Gaza over to Palestinian control under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan. Only one settlement in Gaza remained to be evacuated.

Army and police forces also faced resistance at two northern West Bank settlements that are also part of the withdrawal plan. Israeli forces plan to enter them this week. On Sunday, settlers there injured a soldier in a scuffle and firebombed an army vehicle, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, some 800 Gaza settler families—most with three, four or five children—settled into 25 hotels from the north of Israel to the Dead Sea. Others moved into temporary apartments or trailers, called caravillas here.

"Today, Sunday, they are starting to realize that this is it, that they have to move forward," said Michal Lanki, a social worker helping them.

Calling themselves refugees and still reluctant to negotiate with the government, many of the settlers were taking a wait-and-see approach.

Yaakov Goldberg, a former resident of Kfar Darom in Gaza, was living in the Paradise Hotel with his wife and four young children. His parents and his wife's parents have offered them accommodations elsewhere in Israel, but they preferred to stay with their neighbors from Kfar Darom and may move as a group to an empty apartment building in Ashkelon, just north of the Gaza Strip.

"It's very strange to think of all Kfar Darom crunching into one apartment building," Goldberg said.

The government has given Goldberg and his neighbors 10 days of room and board at the hotel. Then they are expected to move into more permanent housing.

Sela, the government agency set up to provide housing and compensation to displaced settlers, has found homes for about 600 families who agreed to fill out forms, said Sela spokesman Haim Altman.

More than 700 families have gotten government compensation for their lost homes, an average of $1.5 million shekels ($334,000) each, Altman said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday implored the former Gaza settlers to work with the government to find a place for those who have not yet agreed to new housing.

"There is a plan to resettle all evacuees, whether individually—and there is a place for everybody—or in communities, whether in existing communities or in new agricultural communities," Sharon told a Cabinet meeting Sunday. "Of course, in order for this to be possible, there has to be contact. Nothing can be resolved except through dialogue."

Israel captured the Gaza Strip in 1967, and Palestinians want it as part of an independent state.

Kfar Darom representatives were talking to the government Sunday, but other displaced settlers planned to take up residence at a tent city near Gaza to protest the pullout.

Goldberg said many were struggling with their relationships to the state of Israel and not sure about their place in the Israeli Defense Forces, in which nearly all Israeli men serve.

"I guess I will go back, but not soon," Goldberg said of his upcoming reserve duty.

Community members also debated on the Sabbath whether or not to stand up and say the traditional prayer for the state of Israel. Goldberg sat it out.

Lanki, the social worker, said secular Israelis, many of whom were moved by images of Israeli forces pulling fellow Jews from their homes, have a responsibility toward them.

"We have to embrace them. The nation has to help them back into our society," she said.

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(Hoffman reports for the Contra Costa Times.)

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

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