Tiny Jewish settlement in Gaza agrees to pullout


JERUSALEM -- Residents of a Jewish community in the Gaza Strip have agreed to relocate to Israel en masse before the planned evacuation next year of all settlers, officials said yesterday.

Under the deal, all 20 families of the Peat Sadeh settlement in southern Gaza will move to the rural Mavkiim community near Ashkelon, about five miles north of the coastal strip, said Yonatan Bassi, who heads the Israeli agency that is coordinating the relocation of settlers.

It is the first settlement that has signed an agreement to relocate. The residents will leave between late March and late May, more than a month before Israel plans to begin removing all remaining settlers from Gaza, officials said.

Five families from a separate Gaza settlement will join the move to Mavkiim, an agricultural community made up mainly of elderly Holocaust survivors from Hungary. Bassi did not identify the second settlement.

The relocated settlers are to receive land in the farming village, plus compensation for their homes.

Peat Sadeh is one of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, all of which are slated for evacuation under the government plan. Residents also will be withdrawn from four small communities in the northern West Bank.

Although the agreement involves a tiny share of the approximately 8,000 settlers in Gaza, Israeli planners said it was an indication that some residents are resigned to leaving Gaza.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has strengthened his hand by inviting the left-leaning Labor Party to join his conservative government. Labor, which is expected to join soon, backs the withdrawal and can all but guarantee that the Israeli leader has the votes needed to move forward.

Bassi said his agency had held talks with the leaders of other settlements in hopes of negotiating wholesale moves.

"Over the past two weeks we have witnessed the beginning of a big move on the part of the settlers in the direction of dialogue with us," he said.

Israeli officials have indicated that they hope to coax residents to leave in groups as a way of helping settlers preserve community ties and reduce the trauma of leaving their homes.

Officials also want the settlers to go voluntarily to avoid clashes with the Israeli soldiers and police who would be sent to empty the communities. Last week, the main group representing settlers endorsed a call for civil disobedience to thwart the pullout, which they view as a forcible removal of Jews from land they rightfully inhabit.

Residents of the Elei Sinai settlement in the northern Gaza Strip have asked to be relocated as a group to a beachfront spot north of Ashkelon, but the site is used as a military firing range. The government has offered the residents other choices, but no deal has been reached.

Israel's parliament is working out a compensation package for settlers. Many homeowners have complained that the payments envisioned in draft legislation were too low.

In other developments, Palestinian election officials said yesterday that 81 percent of eligible voters took part in municipal elections last week. The voting, which took place in 26 towns and villages in the West Bank, was the first Palestinian municipal election since 1976.

"We are proud of the participation. It showed we are civilized and respect pluralism," Jamal Shobaki, minister of local government and head of the local elections committee, said as he released official results in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Candidates affiliated with Hamas did well in the local balloting -- the group's first foray into Palestinian electoral politics -- capturing a majority in some of the 26 local councils that were at stake.

Fatah, the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, claimed to have won 16 councils, with Hamas and independents taking the remaining 10. But Hamas said it had won in 12 communities.

Shobaki said the elections generally were smooth, despite long lines and the presence of Israeli checkpoints on the outskirts of towns and villages that he said kept some voters from reaching the polls. Ten communities in the Gaza Strip will hold local elections next month that were delayed because of Israeli military operations, he said.

A further round of municipal voting is scheduled in April, involving a larger number of cities and towns, Shobaki said.

The Israeli Cabinet also approved measures to smooth the way for the election Jan. 9 for president of the Palestinian Authority. The steps included gradually withdrawing Israeli troops from cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allowing limited campaign activities in East Jerusalem.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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