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Gaza settlers in denial as pullout date nears (REUTERS) By Mark Heinrich GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip 05/20/05 09:32 AM ET) Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=8559290
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GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - A thunderous boom shook the cozy, gated community and Jewish settlers ran for shelter. A dozen more blasts followed as mortar bombs thudded into palm-fringed streets, flowerbeds and the local zoo.
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Wednesday´s salvo was the latest of many from Palestinian militants against Jewish settlements in occupied Gaza that, after decades on life support within a cocoon of tanks, troops and barbed wire, are to be evacuated by Israel.
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But less than three months before the pullout date, there is little sign of the 8,500 settlers getting ready to go.
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They are building homes for new residents, planting renowned bug- free crops for next winter´s European export market. A new, high- tech vegetable packing plant is humming, and an imposing marble synagogue was festively dedicated last week, 10 years after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon laid its cornerstone.
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It all amounts to what the rightist settlers say is a message to Sharon that they intend to stay and count on a spiraling protest campaign to foil his plan for "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians.
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"I will defend my home as if besieged, or like any person against a mugger in the street, if Sharon comes to expel us," said Noam Livnat as he signed a six-month lease on a new seaside house with workers installing appliances around him.
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"It will be a huge battle so wounding to Israel that Sharon will be forced to disengage from disengagement," said Livnat, an ultra- nationalist settler activist from the West Bank.
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Livnat is among hundreds the Gush Katif settler council says have moved in since the start of 2005 to thicken "facts on the ground" and break the will of soldiers sent to extract them by mounting systematic passive resistance.
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With thousands of supporters escalating a blockade campaign in Israel, they hope to outfox Sharon, a former general who long championed their movement until an about-face last year.
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Orange flags, the color of the stand-fast settler movement, wave from many homes, shops and municipal offices in Gush Katif.
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Not everyone in the tile-roofed suburban enclave carved out of Gaza´s desert with hefty subsidies and cheap mortgages in the 1970s is confident they will hang on.
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The uncertain future is betrayed by notices in some shop windows telling customers they may no longer buy on credit, and decisions by some farmers to put off renovating greenhouses.
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And a crack has opened in the anti-pullout front with some 400 of the 1,700 settler families signing forms indicating their readiness to move to a new seaside community in Israel, but only if pushed to the wall, their leaders said.
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For fear of ostracism by fellow settlers, who have boycotted businesses of some dissenters, they said their group would still refuse to leave their homes unless they were bodily ejected.
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The majority of the mainly nationalist, religious settlers continue to spurn government entreaties to sign up for compensation packages or negotiate relocation.
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The business-as-usual air has been accentuated by the fact it has been relatively calm in the Gaza Strip since Palestinians tentatively suspended a 4-1/2-year uprising in February.
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The cease-fire has been unstable, underlined by the fresh mortar flurry. But such violations seem only to steel settler vows not to leave the Mediterranean seaside territory captured in the 1967 Arab- Israeli war.
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To do so, they say, would "reward Palestinian terrorism" and abandon what many Jews see as a birthright to the land enshrined in the Bible.
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They dismiss polls showing most Israelis see Gaza, a narrow wedge of desert crammed with 1.3 million Palestinians, as a strategic and demographic liability that should be jettisoned.
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Sharon has the critical backing of President Bush, who sees "disengagement" as a catalyst for talks on a Palestinian state based on his "road map" peace plan.
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Foes of what would be Israel´s first removal of settlements from occupied territory Palestinians want for a state take heart from stumbling government efforts to line up housing, schooling and jobs for transplanted settler families.
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They enjoyed television pictures this month of Sharon, with sleeves rolled up as he examined a map in a field in southern Israel, berating contractors for failing to get a move-on in erecting temporary trailer homes he had approved in April.
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"Start working, I´m telling you, start working. I was here a month ago and nothing has been done," Sharon, nicknamed the "Bulldozer," said. "It´s a shame to waste even a minute."
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"We saw Sharon, pounding on the hood of his car, and that makes us calm, because this is a war of nerves between him and us, and he is panicking," said settler spokesman Eran Sternberg.
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Sharon intends to dismantle all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank, an operation set to begin on August 15 and last 4- 5 weeks. The affected West Bank enclaves are tiny and isolated and many residents appear happy to be bought out.
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By contrast, collective denial of the pending withdrawal abounds in Gush Katif, reached from Israel by a corridor highway through a flattened wasteland where tanks point turrets at surviving scraps of Palestinian housing to keep back militants.
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Contractors are restoring a row of wrecked former Egyptian army vacation villas along a splendid dune beach, with roaring surf, for incoming settlers including Livnat´s family of nine.
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"I want to move into one of those too but I can´t afford it yet," said Avinadav Vitkon, watching the builders from his trailer home nearby. "All this building is going on precisely because of Sharon´s plan. This place is livelier than ever."
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In a large greenhouse just inland, farmer Anita Tucker swept her hand over some of her 160,000 head of celery and said local growers had no choice but to plant for the coming season because Sharon´s government had set aside no alternative land for them.
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"I´m against leaving. But whatever your ideology, Gush Katif is a blessing from God for farmers, combining desert dryness and coastal humidity," she said. "The government itself has told us to keep planting so Israel won´t lose (key) European markets."
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To Palestinians, the settlers are usurpers of their land. Most countries regard settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this, and Sharon vows never to cede a string of much larger Jewish enclaves in the West Bank under any future peace deal. (© Reuters 2005. 05/20/05)
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