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Former settlers face new life, future in Israel


ASHKELON, Israel - Freshly coaxed or dragged by Israeli security forces from their homes in the Gaza Strip's Jewish settlements, dozens of dazed and weeping families arrived by the busload at the King Saul Hotel in this seaside city last week.

In the hotel lobby, psychologists and social workers were ready to welcome them with hugs and counseling. Schoolteachers entertained the children with crayons, candies and games. Other volunteers stood by, offering to wash the settlers' laundry.

Then the families were handed keys to hotel rooms and a promise of full room and board on the government's tab for 10 days - after that, they were reminded, it was time to get on with their lives outside the Gaza Strip.

But what the future holds for them after years living in isolated Jewish settlements and what their relationship will be with the Israeli state, which they believe betrayed them, is not clear. Promised by their rabbis, settler leaders and supporters that somehow God would save them and stop the soldiers and police from forcing them from their homes, the settlers' faith-based world has been shaken and turned upside-down.

"The people who are here are in a deep state of shock," said Maya Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the government administration in charge of assisting the evacuated settlers.

Israeli security forces moved swiftly and determinedly last week, clearing out the majority of the Gaza Strip's settlements in less than three days. Army officials had allotted three weeks or more for the evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza plus four in the West Bank. Israeli authorities now expect to wrap up with the evacuation part of the operation by the end of this week.

During the next month, the settlers' homes will be demolished - as agreed to by the Palestinians and Israelis - before the Israeli army dismantles its military posts. Soon after, Israel will hand over the settlement land -about a third of the Gaza Strip - to the Palestinian Authority.

Yet even as the Israeli army began bulldozing settlers' homes Friday, some of the former residents clung to the belief that somehow they would return to Gaza before too long.

"I believe we are going back in two, five, maybe 10 years," said Isabelle Laik, who remained bitter with the Israeli authorities for removing her from her home in Neve Dekalim, the largest of the Gaza Strip's settlements. "I'm feeling great pain that we were betrayed. They used us all the years. They belittled us."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, once the great architect and promoter of the settlement program in Gaza, is the one responsible for destroying the settlements.

His government is trying to make it up to them, spending more than a $1 billion to assist the settlers in finding housing, jobs and schools for their children. Depending on the size of their home and the number of years they lived in a settlement, they are entitled to about $300,000 per family, including interim rent - a windfall for some settlers who had subsidized housing and received other government incentives for living in the Gaza Strip.

"Some are getting a lot more than they ever had," Jacobs said.

But their move to the settlements set in the sand dunes of the Gaza Strip was never really about money. The deeply religious families were answering a higher calling, believing that they were fulfilling God's wish for the Jewish people to settle the Promised Land of the Bible.

Questions in defeat

Now the religious settlers must raise the uncomfortable questions about where they stand after their defeat: Did God fail them? Did they fail God? Is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the only one to blame?

It may be too early to reach conclusions to any of these questions, but among the settlers lounging in the lobby of the King Saul hotel, their answers shifted between resilience and anger.

Nati Zarbib, 31, a banker and father of four, leaned against the wall chatting on his cell phone, upbeat, if angered by what he had experienced.

He had lived in Neve Dekalim for six years until Wednesday morning, when he was urged to go by a group of soldiers who helped him pack his belongings in his car. He gathered his family, and they drove away.

"This battle we lost," he said. "We emerged, strong, determined and with pride. It could be that our homes were destroyed, but the spirit is still there."

For now, their main goal is to stay together as a group somewhere in Israel.

"Our dream at the moment is to build Neve Dekalim anew," he said. "It was our grandfathers and grandmothers who came to the land of Israel to build it. We shall continue the dream and make it a reality."

Israeli political analysts and commentators began to wrestle last week with the question of whether the Gaza settlers will attempt to heal the rift between them and the Israeli government or whether they would drift further away.

"One [reaction] could be to say, 'We were wrong. We were mistaken. Our leadership led us down the wrong path,'" said Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University. "On the other hand, they could say, 'We were tested.' They will find a dozen statements in the Bible of why they were tested and failed. They failed because they weren't religious enough, unified enough, mobilized enough and this could drive them over the edge. They could become more segregated, cutting themselves off from the collective elements of Israeli society."

Some Israelis would say the Gaza settlers are already far removed from much of Israel's urban, high-tech, secular areas like Tel Aviv and many of its suburbs. To supporters of Sharon's plan, the settlers' defeat was a welcome end to the nation's tumultuous experience in Gaza, where the past 38 years of occupation and settlement building were costly and deadly, creating fortress-like suburban communities that disrupted the lives of the 1.3 million, mainly poor, Palestinians living nearby.

Withdrawal's support

Even after an emotional week watching live television images of weeping and screaming settlers torn from their homes, soldiers embracing settlers and young men dressed in sweaty orange T-shirts and skullcaps hurling paint thinner, bricks and debris at soldiers, support for the withdrawal did not waver.

A poll published Friday in the major Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth found that 59 percent of Israelis were in favor of Sharon's plan.

The next question to ask, in the minds of those seeking to move along the peace process with the Palestinians, is how soon Israelis may be ready to withdraw settlements from the West Bank.

That may largely depend on how Israelis view the Gaza withdrawal.

"On the one hand, you had these heartbreaking stories where you see people leaving their homes. On the other hand, you had these hoodlums like the ones who spilled the acid on the police. It will be interesting to see which of the images is more powerful," says Shmuel Sandler, an analyst at Bar-Ilan University.

Whether Israelis support or oppose the settlers, wrote Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz newspaper, all Israelis - especially those against the settlers - should still find in their hearts a place to mourn the Gaza settlers and their loss.

The settlers, he wrote, "were not fanatics; they were not the fascist enemy; they were believers, unfortunate but good hearted, who devoted themselves with all their might to a false ideal."

As one settler said recently, Sandler recalled: "'We failed because we settled the land but we didn't settle in the hearts of the people.'"

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