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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2005, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
Gaza settlers face uneasy future
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

An Israeli army watchtower in the Gush Katif block of settlements in the southern Gaza Strip
The hotels at Gush Katif settlement closed a long time ago
In the ruins of the Palm Beach Hotel, you get a sense that an era is drawing to an end, that Israel's settlement project in Gaza is entering its last days.

Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, Gaza has become a violent, dangerous place.

People don't come on holiday anymore.

The Palm Beach resort complex, in the southern Gush Katif settlement bloc, was abandoned years ago.

And everything that the Israelis have built here - nearly 20 settlements housing several thousand people - will be abandoned if Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza goes ahead in August.

Squatters

The Palm Beach's reception and dining room have been stripped of fixtures and furniture. The wind off the sea blows in across floors strewn with broken glass.

I love Gush Katif. Great beaches. Good surf. Good fishing. It will be very difficult to leave
Elazaar Elchiam, surfer

A surfer called Elazaar Elchiam is among a handful of young Israelis who live in the decaying hotel, squatting in an apartment. He grew up in a nearby settlement, but he knows that this may well be his last summer on Gaza's beach.

"Since I was little, I've been coming down to the sea," he says. "I love Gush Katif. Great beaches. Good surf. Good fishing. It will be very difficult to leave."

The settlers have been outraged by the disengagement plan from the outset - and many are determined to resist it to the end.

Action planned

In recent weeks, empty apartments in the Palm Beach complex have begun filling up with what are being described as reinforcements.

These are supporters of the settlement movement from the West Bank or Israel itself who will be here for any showdown with the army when the evacuation begins.

It is too hard to think that they are going to give it to terrorists
Debbie Rosen, settler

The settlers are appalled by the possibility that their homes may be taken over by Palestinian militants who have been attacking Gush Katif for years.

To prevent that happening, the Israelis may demolish all their property before they leave.

"You don't want to destroy what you built," says Debbie Rosen, who raised her six children in Gush Katif. "It's home with all the memories that you grew up with... It's my kids, it's my garden, my flowers that I just planted. It's home.

"On the other hand, it is too hard to think that they are going to give it to terrorists. Terrorists that killed my best friends - and they are going to celebrate in my home. It's too hard."

Loathing

Under international law, Gaza has been occupied territory since Israeli troops captured it in 1967.

By establishing civilian settlements here, Israel breached the Geneva Conventions - the rules of warfare. But for the settlers, this is meaningless.

"I never relate to my home as occupied territory," says Debbie Rosen, who thinks of Gaza as part of Israel - part of the land that God promised the Jews.

We are guilty... they want a country
Israeli settler

But just a few kilometres away, in the Palestinian town of Khan Younis, the occupation is far from meaningless. It is hated, and the settlements - and the soldiers who protect them - are regarded as its purest form.

For decades the Israeli presence has twisted and restricted and endangered Palestinian lives in many ways.

For the people of Khan Younis, the beach at Gush Katif used to be an escape from the summer heat in their poverty-stricken alleyways.

But since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada (uprising), the army has blocked their route to the sea. Khan Younis has lost its beach.

And nobody has lost more than Mohammad Shaath. He used to operate a cafe on the beach - the Cafe El Andalus. But the army's restrictions have meant that he has not been able to see it for years.

As a foreigner, I could make the short trip easily. And I found the cafe - gone to ruin.

The sands of the beach have invaded the terrace, where Palestinians used to enjoy fresh fish, drink coffee and sit and watch the sea.

While his cafe has rotted, Mr Shaath, up in Khan Younis, has been unemployed - sinking gradually into poverty. He says that if the Israelis go, he'll take out a loan and bring the El Andalus back to life.

Differing views

The settlers would certainly say that Mr Shaath should blame his troubles on the militants who launched the intifada and began attacking the settlers.

The army only blocked the Palestinian road to the beach because it would have been very dangerous to allow easy access to the settlement area.

But there was a voice of dissent among the settlers.

A young man on the beach said he understood what drove the Palestinian militants.

He said that when Israelis were fighting to establish an independent state in the 1940s, they resorted to violence.

The young settler clearly felt that the Palestinians had endured injustice at Israel's hands. "We are guilty," he said. "They want a country."




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