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Out of Gaza, settlers in the cold

In a sign of the group's falling clout in Israeli politics, evacuees feel abandoned as they try to rebuild their lives.

February 26, 2007|Vita Bekker | Special to The Times

NITZAN, ISRAEL — The wood-framed photo stands atop the television set, an obstinate reminder of what Avi Burstein's family lost.

In it, Burstein, his wife and four children are hugging one another on the green lawn of a sprawling red-roofed house. The tanned faces of the two grown sons stare bitterly into the camera. Their younger sisters, in long denim skirts with their brown hair pulled back, wear sad expressions.

The shot was taken hours before Israel removed more than 8,000 Jewish settlers, including the Bursteins, from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005.

"Imagine," Burstein said, a green knit skullcap covering his graying hair, as he peered at the photo through dark-rimmed glasses. "A person builds a house with his own 10 fingers. And then one day it's all erased."

But more than his home is gone. Burstein, 49, a farmer who grew lettuce, tomatoes and roses in greenhouses for export, has been jobless since the evacuation.

The Bursteins live in this southern Israeli community about 15 miles north of the Gaza Strip along with the biggest group of Gaza evacuees, numbering in the hundreds. Their temporary prefabricated house is less than half the size of the one they lost.

Straining to meet daily expenses, Burstein already has spent one-third of the compensation his family received to build a permanent home.

Other Gaza evacuees are in a similar fix. Many are older than 50 and unskilled for available jobs, an evacuees committee said. Others who restarted their businesses are losing money because costs in Israel are higher than in the Gaza Strip.

At this point, a quarter of the Gaza evacuees remain unemployed. And in more than 21 sites designated to become their permanent communities, construction has been delayed by the red tape of a resettlement program that has cost the Israeli government more than $2 billion.

The evacuees' predicament is a measure of the decline in political power of Israel's settler movement. It also is an indication of the difficulties Israel may encounter in any evacuation of the much larger number of settlements in the West Bank, considered an inevitable part of any final peace accord with the Palestinians. Only four small settlements in the northern West Bank were evacuated at the time of the Gaza withdrawal.

Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza, led by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was widely welcomed by the international community as a step toward reviving long-moribund peace talks with the Palestinians. It was the first withdrawal from territories captured during the 1967 Middle East War and claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state.

Most Israelis supported Sharon's "disengagement" from Gaza, which included the closing of Israel's military bases in the coastal strip. But the settlers, viewed by most Israelis as obstacles to peace, protested their "expulsion" from land they consider part of Jews' biblical birthright.

After Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in January 2006, Ehud Olmert inherited the leadership of his newly formed centrist Kadima party, founded on a platform aiming to redraw Israel's borders.

Olmert was elected to succeed Sharon as prime minister in March 2006 on a pledge to withdraw many of the 250,000 settlers in the West Bank, a plan supported by the United States. The idea was shelved after Israel's war with Hezbollah last summer ended without clear resolution, weakening Olmert's government.

But the settler movement has not recovered.

The National Religious Party and the National Union, far-right parties closely identified with the movement, won a total of nine seats out of 120 in last year's parliamentary elections, and are part of the opposition. They had 11 seats between them in the previous parliamentary term, when they were initially part of the governing coalition.

Their decline is attributed in part to voter disappointment over their failure to influence the government to stop the withdrawal, political analysts say.

Another sign of the movement's waning power is the fact that few Gaza evacuees have chosen to restart their lives in the West Bank.

"People who in the past would have been considered perfect nominees for settling there are more hesitant because they're afraid they'll face the same future," said Yair Sheleg, a researcher at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute and a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper.

Since the Gaza pullout, the settler movement has succeeded in pressing the government to support settlement expansion in the West Bank, in violation of Israel's commitment to freeze such activity under a 4-year-old U.S.-backed peace proposal known as the road map, with which neither side has complied.

Dror Etkes of Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that opposes settlements, said the settler population in the West Bank has continued to grow at a rate of about 5% a year in the last decade, mostly from births, and new construction has averaged about 1,500 housing units annually.

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