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Moving As One?

Moving As One?

Zikkim Beach, Israel — Itzik Levy rambles up a grassy sand dune just three miles down the coast from Ashkelon and surveys what he hopes one day could be the site of his new home.

Some 19 years ago, Levy had moved to the settlement of Eli Sinai on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip amid dunes with a similar view of the Mediterranean’s blue horizon. Now he’s lobbying the Israeli government to set aside areas like Zikkim Beach or the dunes of Nitzanim for Eli Sinai residents who want to rebuild their communities inside the Green Line.

“Look at a how beautiful it is; less than 100 meters from the sea,” said Levy, who has raised a family in Eli Sinai. “If there’s peace, think of how much it will blossom. When we brought families here, they were jumping at it.”

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government prepares to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and relocate some 7,500 settlers, Levy and Eli Sinai co-founder Moshe Adashe want to move their settlement as a bloc to a similar area inside the Green Line.

With one-third of Eli Sinai’s 90 families backing the initiative, Levy and Adashe have coalesced the first group of Gaza settlers ready to comply with a government-ordered evacuation.

To be sure, neither Levy nor Adashe are rushing to abandon Eli Sinai. The intimacy, calm and beauty of the seaside settlement will make it difficult to turn their backs on their homes of two decades.

With Ashkelon less than 10 minutes away by car and the beach within walking distance, Levy argued that residents enjoy a quality of life unrivaled in the rest of Israel.

But Sharon’s determination to push forward with the pullback initiative has forced them to face up to a reality that appears to be getting bleaker for the Jews in Gaza. As Labor and Likud opened negotiations this week about forming a national unity government, Levy said the new coalition signaled a death knell to any hopes of remaining at Eli Sinai.

“It’s a lost cause,” Levy said. “We aren’t happy about the disengagement. We would prefer to stay. But we’re also pragmatic.”

That’s why Levy and Adashe are lobbying the government to designate a new tract of land for the Eli Sinai residents. They argue that the evacuation will be less painful if the settlers are given the opportunity to preserve their communities after leaving Gaza.

“We want this to be as organic as possible,” Adashe said.

Were the government to agree to give Eli Sinai residents tracts of land in the Nitzanim dunes — about six miles north of Ashkelon, it is more attractive than Zikkim because it is out of the range of Hamas’ Kassam rockets — nearly all the residents would take the offer, Levy and Adashe predicted.

“There will be less trauma if we move together,” Levy said. “There is an agreement, if we get Nitzanim, the entire community will move. It’s the same view, the same climate and the same distance to the sea.”

But not everyone shares Levy’s view. At the entrance to the settlement, a sign informs residents of a visit of a parliament member from the Likud Party who is opposing the disengagement plan. Many of the red-roofed, two-story villas have signs in the windows reading “My house is not for sale.”

Avi Farkhan, another founding member of Eli Sinai, led a crowd of protesters who demonstrated outside a recent meeting between Levy and the director of aid to settlement evacuees, Jonathan Bassi.

“The initiative is terrible. Itzik Levy should fight for his home instead of being dragged by the disinformation from the displacement administration,” said Farkhan, who happens to live next door to Levy. “It’s stabbing a knife in our back in the struggle against the disengagement. Whoever offers an alternative weakens the struggle.”

A virtual suburb of Ashkelon, most of Eli Sinai’s residents moved there for the quality of life — generous government subsidies and the proximity to the sea. They lack the ideological fervor of their counterparts in Gush Katif.

And so, the settlers in Eli Sinai are split between people like Farkhan, who refuse to consider leaving at any price, and those like Levy, who have started to inquire about where they will move if the evacuation gets final approval by the government.

Avichai Perry, a classmate of Levy’s son, said he found talk of moving elsewhere “annoying.” Moving to a similar area might be a good opportunity, but it can never re-create the town where he spent nearly his entire childhood.

“I grew up here. If they destroy this place, I won’t have any memories to return to,” said Perry, 20, adding that he would like to return to Eli Sinai after the army. “I always thought my children would attend the same kindergarten as I did, and to think that they won’t is difficult.”

Sarah Kahani, a kindergarten teacher with a teenage son also of army age, said the residents are quietly talking about leaving. Although her children have participated in demonstrations against Sharon’s disengagement plan, she has made phone inquiries on her own about new places to live.

Kahani said concern about the approaching evacuation is the main topic of discussion on the settlement. Although the residents face the same unnerving uncertainty about where they will be in another year, Kahani acknowledges a quiet tension between the diehards and those who are looking elsewhere. Some neighbors are searching for new neighborhoods together.

“We want to remain in the same framework of togetherness, like a family,” she said. “If we move together, it will make the evacuation easier. We will be able to help each other.”

The idea of moving en masse has received a mixed reception from government officials.Yonatan Bassi, head of the government’s disengagement authority, has told Levy that he has no authority to approve such a plan.

On the other hand, Housing Minister Tzippi Livni has called the idea a “welcome plan,” and is considering lending her support to advance the idea once Levy submits the list of names.

The proposed Gaza evacuation law makes provision for settlers who want to move as a bloc. Levy claimed a precedent was established in the evacuation of the Sinai settlement of Yamit in the early 1980s.

“In the Bible they also moved communities en masse,” he said. “Just read about King Solomon in the Book of the Prophets.”

The proposal to move as one also would ease the financial burdens of the families. Levy and Adashe estimate that the average owner of a 100-square-meter house on half a dunam of land will be offered less than $100,000 by the government — a sum they called an insult.

Driving home from his job at the Ashkelon regional council, Levy conceded that the dilemma of the evacuation has even divided families. While his son wants to remain at Eli Sinai, his wife wants to move closer to family.

“When they take people out of here, something will die in the heart,” Levy said. “I haven’t cried, but I assume that there will be a point when there will be tears.”

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