Jewish Settlers in Gaza Face Uncertain Future

Less than three months before thousands of Jewish settlers are due to be removed from their homes in the Gaza Strip, they still have no idea where they are going to go. The government has detailed plans for how to remove them from their homes, but there are no concrete plans on where to put them afterwards.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

In less than three months, Israel is due to withdraw its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. That is the schedule, anyway, but when you speak to the Israelis who would be affected, you find widespread skepticism. Many of the 8,000 settlers say the government has made almost no concrete plans for the pullout, and they say they have no intention of leaving anyway. Some continue to believe the withdrawal won't happen. NPR's Linda Gradstein visited three settlements in Gaza and files this report.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

When Sarita Maoz was 14 years old, she and her family were evacuated from the settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Desert when Israel handed the territory back to Egypt. Now Maoz is due to be evacuated again, this time from her settlement of Elei Sinai in northern Gaza. She has no idea where she will go, and she says the Israeli government has done nothing to help her.

Ms. SARITA MAOZ (Settler): You can't imagine how much it's disorganized. You can't imagine that the--Israel will treat people, citizens, like this.

GRADSTEIN: Maoz sits on her balcony just yards from the spot where a Palestinian sniper shot and wounded her and her husband more than three years ago. Maoz says it's hard to understand how Israel can withdraw from Gaza after all the settlers have been through.

Ms. MAOZ: Think about it, they're going to take 1,700 families from their home, about 4,000 or 5,000 children, and they don't really care.

GRADSTEIN: Maoz says the settlers' main concern is that they all stay together. She says they plan to build a large tent city in the nearby Negev Desert until the Israeli government finds a way to keep them together.

A senior Israeli official, who declined to be interviewed on tape, blamed the settlers for refusing to cooperate with the government and fill out the necessary forms. He said each family will receive between $200,000 and $400,000 plus two years of rent on an apartment while they decide on permanent housing. In the short term, he said there are hundreds of empty apartments in Ashkelon, just a 15-minute drive from Gaza, and he said other settlers could go to smaller rural settlements in the area.

(Soundbite of celery being eaten)

GRADSTEIN: In the bloc of Jewish settlements known as Gush Katif, Anita Tucker crunches on some celery while standing in one of her greenhouses. She has made no plans to leave. Every week she plants new celery seedlings, and she has ordered seeds for next year as well. She says she is convinced God wants the settlers to remain in Gaza, and she said she could never replicate what she has here.

Ms. ANITA TUCKER (Settler): I don't think I can grow things the way I do here somewhere else, because there's something very special here about the climate. There's something very special about having changed the empty sand dunes, the cursed land, into something flowering.

GRADSTEIN: These days, Tucker is putting her energy into the battle for public opinion. On a recent afternoon, she hosted a group of Israelis, most of them Orthodox Jews, who came from Jerusalem in an armored bus.

(Soundbite of voices)

Ms. TUCKER: Folks, we want to start. Come on, there's no time.

Unidentified Woman: ...(Unintelligible) come closer...

GRADSTEIN: She passes out organic red peppers from her neighbor's field. He's just invested tens of thousands of dollars in a brand-new sorting and packing house, another sign, she says, that no one plans to leave.

One of the visitors, Sue Friedman, describes herself as left-wing and says she used to support the Israeli pullback from Gaza. She says she came expecting to see the settlers depressed about the impending withdrawal.

Ms. SUE FRIEDMAN (Visitor): I have been so invigorated while I'm here. I think my whole opinion has changed completely. I've been like, `They're heroes here. These people are heroes.'

GRADSTEIN: In another nearby settlement, Rachel Saperstein(ph) sits in her comfortable house overlooking the sea and says she, too, has no plans to leave.

Ms. RACHEL SAPERSTEIN (Settler): I'm not packing anything, ever. If the government plans to throw me out, the government will pack for me. But I don't plan to be leaving this place.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News.

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