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Jewish settlers build anew in Gaza, despite evacuation plan

Construction seen as snub to Sharon

SHIRAT HAYAM, Gaza Strip -- The 16 families who live in this beachfront Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip are not just clinging to their homes ahead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned evacuation of Israelis from the area this summer; they're building new ones.

With donations from Israel and abroad and laborers from China and Nepal, residents of Shirat Hayam have begun renovating a row of ramshackle houses abandoned by Egypt 38 years ago and since condemned by building engineers.

The construction mirrors a broader trend in Gush Katif, the main settlement bloc in Gaza, where dozens of houses have gone up since Sharon's government approved the disengagement plan from Gaza and the northern West Bank nearly a year ago.

Some people who live in rentals are building houses for themselves, either in defiance or in denial of the plan. Other houses are being built or refurbished to accommodate what appears to be a rush of newcomers, many from settlements in the West Bank.

Almost all of the construction is a snub to Sharon, who had hoped by now to see most of Gaza's 8,000 settlers coming to terms with the inevitability of their evacuation.

''Generally speaking, we don't feel like we're living as if things are coming to an end," said Hana Picard, a 47-year-old resident of Shirat Hayam whose trailer home, like those of others here, is parked on Mediterranean sand just 150 feet from the waterline. ''On the contrary, we feel like things are constantly getting renewed, and that's why you see construction here."

The withdrawal marks the first time since 1967 that Israel will uproot Jews from full-fledged settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Resistance is expected to be at least as fierce as it was when authorities evacuated a much smaller number of Israelis from settlements in Sinai 23 years ago, under a peace accord with Egypt.

The Israeli police and army are planning to use tens of thousands of troops to pull settlers from their homes and to prevent Palestinians from attacking departing convoys.

In the run-up, authorities are worried that thousands of settlers from the West Bank will relocate to Gaza to help block the evacuation.

Picard said her settlement has received dozens of calls a day in recent months from Israelis who want to move to Shirat Hayam. She said residents decided last month to flout a longstanding ban by the army on renovating the old structures, built as vacation houses for Egyptian officers before the 1967 Middle East war.

''We have a huge list of people who want to come here," she said, standing in front of one of the houses, where workers have attached a new roof and applied layers of concrete to crumbling walls. ''These houses are specifically being built for certain families," said Picard, an Orthodox Jew who has six children.

Settlers established Shirat Hayam, one of the smallest of 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip, after a deadly Palestinian attack on an Israeli school bus in Gaza at the start of the Palestinian uprising 4Æ years ago.

The settlement is fenced off and guarded by soldiers. It has grown only slightly in the past year because the army refuses to allow settlers to move more trailer homes into the area.

But other settlements in Gaza have flourished since Sharon began formulating his disengagement plan in late 2003. According to government population figures, Netzarim, the most isolated Jewish community in the Strip, grew by 25 percent in the past year. Netzer Hazani, a settlement in Gush Katif, swelled by 21 percent, and Kfar Darom grew by 29 percent.

Kfar Darom resident Asher Mivtzari, who moved to Gaza 13 years ago, said his community was adding second stories to existing houses to accommodate new families. He said 10 new families had joined the settlement in the past month alone.

In the center of Kfar Darom, where the army also maintains a large base, construction will be completed soon on a sprawling synagogue, after a delay of years caused by the Palestinian uprising.

''We decided the appropriate response to Sharon's plan was to accelerate the pace of construction and finish the synagogue before the summer," said Mivtzari, 47.

Another Kfar Darom resident, Meir Dana-Picard, said most residents believe that an act of God will prevent Sharon from carrying out the disengagement. ''Some things get decided at a level that is far above Sharon and his government," he said.

Other settlers said they believe that public support for the withdrawal is waning. They cite a recent poll in the daily newspaper Ma'ariv that showed 54 percent of Israelis back the disengagement plan, compared to 61 percent three weeks ago.

Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza, grew by about 10 percent since 2004 and is now home to 2,600 people. On its western edge, a neighborhood has sprouted since last year where six houses are at various stages of construction.

Dror Vanunu, who serves as an occasional spokesman for the community, is weeks away from completing his house, a large, single-story building with blue windows and a sloping blue-tiled roof.

Vanunu said construction of the house was delayed because once the withdrawal plan received government approval last year, banks stopped providing mortgages for construction in settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.

''I had to get help from people in the family and bank guarantees from abroad," said Vanunu, who lives in a rented apartment in Neve Dekalim with his wife and three children.

Sharon's government has pledged to compensate settlers for their houses and other property left behind. Negotiations over compensation are still ongoing, and the government's latest proposal -- to relocate all the settlers to a coveted coastal area north of the Gaza Strip -- has caused some settlers to rethink the strategy of resisting the evacuation.

But residents who began building their houses after the government passed the disengagement plan last June will not be eligible for compensation, according to the bill.

''It's complicated," said Barak Cohen, 28, a contractor who, along with his father, started building four housing units in Neve Dekalim after the Cabinet decision to withdraw and now rents them to journalists covering the disengagement.

''They say we won't get money, but there will be appeals committees," he said. ''I hope we don't have to leave. But if we do, I hope we can get back the money we invested."

Picard, the Shirat Hayam resident, said she worries about something else: whether Israeli authorities will destroy the houses or leave them standing for Palestinians to use. Sharon's Cabinet is set to decide on the matter in the coming weeks.

''I can tell you personally I have a very big and beautiful house in Neve Dekalim, a 200-square-meter house," she said. ''I don't want them to demolish my house.

''I would prefer that someone live there for the time being, because I believe that I will return [one day] if we are evacuated from here."

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