Breaking the ranks in Gaza

RAFIA YAM, GAZA STRIP — RAFIA YAM, Gaza Strip -- The pizza shop here has lost most of its customers, and the nearby hardware store is mostly empty, too.

Avishai Nativ, the pizza maker, and Meir Rotenstein, owner of the hardware store, are among the first residents of this Jewish settlement to publicly back Israel's plan to abandon all 21 settlements in Gaza and give up the territory to Palestinians, and they are paying the price.


Nativ and Rotenstein were among a handful of people who attended an ostensibly secret meeting at Nativ's house last week about leaving Gaza, a meeting besieged by a mob of angry settlers outside. Settler leaders somehow learned of the meeting and, according to Nativ, trapped people in Rafia Yam for hours by blocking the settlement's gate and tossing trash cans.

By breaking ranks with the majority of the 8,100 Gaza settlers, Nativ and Rotenstein have become an unexpected hint of divisiveness within a movement that has counted on solidarity for much of its political power.


Adding to the tension, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed yesterday evacuating all 21 settlements at the same time instead of in three phases, officials said, to prevent drawn-out confrontations between settlers and security forces. He is expected to present a timetable today for votes on the disengagement plan by the Cabinet and parliament.

Leaders of the settler movement portray Nativ and Rotenstein as outcasts who are unable to find secure jobs, who are motivated by personal disputes with their landlords and who don't believe that Gaza, home to 1.3 million Palestinians, rightfully belongs to the Jewish people.

Some of those accusations are true.

Nativ and Rotenstein say they live in Rafia Yam -- part of the larger area known as Gush Katif -- for economic reasons, not ideology. The two are decidedly indifferent about whether Israelis should stay here.

"There is an intolerable security situation here," Nativ said in the living room of his home, close enough to the border with Egypt to see an Egyptian flag fluttering over a watchtower.

"I decided that if the government chose to evacuate, I would get up and move," he said, dismissing any notion that he would resist Israeli soldiers or police. "If there will be a decision that I should not be here, I will not oppose it. As soon as the government offers me compensation, I will be among the first in line."

Settlement leaders insist that only a few people want to leave, while aides to Sharon say 2,000 settlers have quietly contacted an office set up this summer to handle compensation claims for evacuees.

The army says that its plans for the pullout, estimated to cost $400 million, could be completed by the end of next month, and a Cabinet vote authorizing the withdrawal and payments of up to $320,000 each to homeowners could follow in October.


The anxiety is already unmistakable here.

Banners that vow a fight against evacuation hang everywhere and mix incendiary rhetoric with biblical verse. Israeli soldiers guarding the settlement gates have instructions to notify settlement officials about the arrival of reporters to ensure, the officials say, that only the sanctioned message gets out. Government inspectors, meanwhile, roam the area with notebooks and cameras, apparently assessing the values of homes.

Gush Katif spokesman Eran Sternberg dismissed Nativ and Rotenstein as radicals bent on destroying their own community: They can do whatever they want," he said. "They say the same thing over and over to newspapers and television shows. It is always the same two people, so in that regard, it helps show that we are still strong."

Sternberg said the protesters who descended on Nativ's home were angry with an activist group called Shuvi that promoted the meeting. "These two residents who invited Shuvi into their homes provoked the violence," he said. "They not only express a different opinion than us, which is quite legitimate, but they are dirtying the entire image of Gush Katif."

Nativ, 47, moved to Gaza 10 years ago after the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency offered him financial aid but gave him only one choice: Rafia Yam.

Trained as an electrician, Nativ said the only job he could find was making pizza, for about $900 a month. The customers at his shop were mainly soldiers and Yeshiva students studying in caravans nearby.


No one has eaten outside for months because of gunmen in the nearby Palestinian city of Rafah. Nativ delivered most of his pizzas, but even that business has almost stopped since last week's meeting about leaving. "The neighbors don't talk to us now," he said. "They don't even go near our house."

Rotenstein, who lives north of Rafia Yam in Neve Dekalim, grew up in Yamit, a Jewish settlement in the Sinai Desert that then-General Sharon forcibly emptied in 1982. Two years later, Rotenstein moved with his parents to Gush Katif, then left and returned in 1991 with his wife.

Unable to find work, he did odd jobs before opening a cluttered hardware store between the settlement supermarket and municipal building.

Good business and a quiet lifestyle ended when the Palestinian uprising began four years ago, Rotenstein said. Because TV repair people refused to drive to the settlement, Rotenstein collected televisions in need of repair and took them out of Gaza himself. But he never became used to what seemed like hard work for low pay while enduring the danger of attacks on the roads and mortar shells fired toward his house.

"This separation plan is good because life here isn't what it used to be," he said, adding that he had wanted to leave before Sharon announced the disengagement plan but couldn't afford to move. Now, he wants $500,000 for his home, and more for his business.

"I didn't come here because of ideology," he said. "I came here because my relatives pressured me and because it was cheap. I didn't choose this."