Farmer's death deepens fears of Gaza settlers

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THERE HAS been something particularly macabre about recent murders of Jews in the Israeli- occupied Gaza Strip. The victims have usually been brutally stabbed in or near a fruit or vegetable hothouse.

Most Jewish settlers in Gaza make their living by hi-tech computerised vegetable production, employing cheap Palestinian labour. When Uri Megidish was found face down inside his tomato hothouse on Moshav Gan Or, a collective farm, his body was covered in blood and sand.

The doctor who found him, Gary Bassin, says there were six stab wounds in his neck, three in the mouth and one in the abdomen. 'Uri had collected his two Arab employees from the gate at about 6am. They had only been working for him for a few weeks. But all Arabs have special identity cards to work for us so that they can usually be trusted.

'He drove them down to the hothouse like he did every day to show them their work. They stabbed him in the car and then dragged him out, dumping him between the tomato plants'.

Mr Megidish's death has ushered in a new phase in the war which Gaza settlers now openly declare they are fighting against the Strip's Palestinian inhabitants. He was the third Jewish settler here to die in the past 12 months. But he was the first to be killed inside the tight security surrounding his own farm.

After Mr Megidish's funeral on Monday, a Palestinian, Naim Maidun, was shot dead during stone-throwing protests at the main Gaza checkpoint. Yesterday a settler, a reserve major in the Israel army, turned himself in to police saying he had fired gunshots in self-defence during the demonstration.

Fearing further settler retaliation, the Israeli army warned Jews living in Gaza not to take the law into their own hands. Nearly 5,000 Jewish settlers live in the Gaza Strip in compounds built on land declared 'state land' by Israel, among more than 750,000 Palestinians who largely live in refugee camps. The settlers pass along specially constructed roads that bypass the camps and are heavily patrolled by Israeli soldiers.

Despite these measures, the settlers have not been able to escape the rise in violence in Gaza in recent months. Palestinians, experiencing increasingly hardline policies at the hands of the Israeli military, are lashing out at soldiers and also at the Jewish civilians in their midst.

Now the settlers are talking about taking the matter into their own hands. They say the government is wasting its time 'talking peace with terrorists'. They say they will be forced to stop employing Palestinian labour, and will defend themselves by 'shooting to kill' even against stone-throwers.

The settlers feel embattled for another reason. Renewed tension in Gaza has fuelled debate in Israel about unilateral disengagement from the Strip. Few Jews here claim a biblical right to the land, as they do in the West Bank. They say they come here 'because we like the quality of life'.

Just above the hothouse where Mr Megidish died is is a Jewish yeshiva, or religious school. And just below is the Palm Beach hotel, where religious Jews come to spend five-star Mediterranean weekends just three miles from Khan Younis refugee camp.

But the settlers have convinced themselves they do not really live in Gaza. 'This area is just an extension of the Negev,' said the owner of the hotel, Eitan Ben-David. 'Most Israelis who come to stay in my hotel wouldn't even know they are in Gaza . . . It's like South Africa. You hear there are riots there and people getting killed, but when you actually go you don't see it at all.'