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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April, 2005, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Settlers unnerved by uncertainty
Jonathan Marcus
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Settlement in Gaza - Neve Dekalim
Troops will evacuate settlers by force if necessary

In Gush Katif, the bloc of Israeli settlements in the southern Gaza Strip, disengagement is coming ever closer, but they are still building and pouring concrete.

In one village, a synagogue was being hastily completed.

In the largest settlement, Neve Dekalim, a cement mixer tipped concrete into the belly of a giant extending boom, which in turn injected the cement-mix into the roof-space of a house - an ad hoc defence against Palestinian mortar bombs.

But the political lease on these settlements has almost expired.

Within a matter of months, troops will be coming to evacuate the settlers - by force if necessary.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, traditionally one of the strongest supporters of settlement here, now says that in the Gaza Strip at least, the settlers' dreams are over.

It is a bitter pill for the settlers to swallow. Many did not want to speak to us at all.

But one redoubtable woman, Esther Lillienthal, did want to have her views heard.

Bitter disappointment

"There are some 500 families in Neve Dekalim," she told me, and at least 280 housing units that were built when Ariel Sharon was housing minister.

"So we are bitterly disappointed and shocked at his about-face," she told me.

What will happen I asked, when the army comes to evict her and her neighbours?

"If it comes to that there will be mass civil disobedience," she answered. How far was she prepared to go? She sighed, and looked me straight in the eye. "I'm staying right here in this house."

It is clear to me that in order to proceed with this disengagement we have to shatter this system of the two States
Ze'ev Schiff, Haaretz newspaper

The feeling of betrayal among the settlers is palpable.

As Yuval Steinitz, a prominent Likud member of Israel's parliament - the Knesset - told me, successive Israeli governments had sent them there.

The settlers had sacrificed comfortable lives in central Israel. They had lost loved ones.

For them this was both an ideological and a personal tragedy.

In the years before the establishment of the state of Israel, returning to the land was part and parcel of the Zionist dream. The settlement movement in the occupied territories saw itself as a continuation of this earlier project.

However, it is often forgotten that the settlers are a diverse group of people.

Some, like those I met in Gush Katif, hold to a strongly redemptionist religious ideology.

For them, settlement on the land captured in the 1967 War was God's work.

But in other settlement blocs, especially in those communities in the West Bank that are closest to Israel's pre-1967 borders, there is a greater variety of views.

To get a sense of this diversity, I visited Gush Etzion, a group of settlements built on high-ground overlooking Bethlehem, only about 20 minutes' drive from Jerusalem.

Small Jewish communities were established here in the pre-state period, but their defenders were driven out or killed in the 1948 war.

System of two states

Some 19 years later, after the Six-Day War, the communities were re-established and expanded.

The mayor of Gush Etzion, Shaul Goldstein - a religious technocrat in open-neck shirt with an array of pagers and mobile phones on his belt - took me for a drive around the area.

If it was not for the landscape and the heavy-duty security gates and fencing, one could almost have been in California. This was an affluent world away from the Gush Katif.

Gush Etzion on the West Bank
Gush Etzion was established before the creation of the State of Israel

Some of the settlements here, he told me, were ideological; some were religious, but many people were simply attracted here by the lifestyle and the appeal of an easy commuting distance from Jerusalem.

But even here, there was the same sense of betrayal when I asked about Mr Sharon.

The prime minister himself has spoken of there being "an atmosphere of civil war" in Israel. Hyperbole or spin, say many of the settlers.

For an authoritative answer, I turned to one of Israel's most respected commentators, Ze'ev Schiff of the Haaretz newspaper.

"I don't believe that Israeli society is facing a civil war," he told me, "that is really too much."

However, in his view, Israel was standing at a defining moment.

The years of occupation, he argued, had effected Israel badly.

"Unwillingly," he told me, "we succeeded in building two states - we didn't intend to do it - but this is the result: there is the state of Israel and there is the state in Samaria or Judea, the State of the Settlers."

"It is clear to me that in order to proceed with this disengagement we have to shatter this system of the two states."

Today, Israel is divided like never before.

And the settlement movement, long among the most powerful pressure groups in the country, is now finding its influence cut down to size.

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