A carnival atmosphere descends as Gaza's settlers make their last stand

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Neve Dekalim, the most populous of the Gaza Jewish settlements facing forcible evacuation, was unexpectedly en fête yesterday.

At the local food store and supermarket, shelves were emptying as residents bought up stocks of rice, bottled water and other staples in preparation for a wait of anything for a few days to three weeks for the Army to arrive to evict them.

But, despite preparations as if for a siege, it was hard to realise that Neve Dekalim, one of 21 settlements already declared a closed military zone, was on the verge of a last stand against an Israeli state determined to uproot it 22 years after its foundation and finally return its land to the Palestinians.

For the community of 2,600, swelled by supporters from Israel and the occupied West Bank, was in carnival mood as orange flags flew from public buildings, a loudspeaker proclaimed a free "happening" for children and kippa-wearing teenagers lolled peacefully on the grass outside the municipality HQ.

Opposite the town hall -in whose shade chatting residents took refuge from the sub-tropical ninety-five degree heat - a mobile, free "Orange Buffet" proclaiming "Against Profits, For Israel" in keeping with the alternative, even hippyish, style adopted by some far-right settler youths, dispensed cereal and milk to late-rising infiltrators who had evaded Army checkpoints to show their solidarity.

In his spice and grocery shop, Barak Cohen, married to a native of the settlement, said he was determined to keep it open for as long as physically possible, and that he would stay after the deadline of Sunday night set by the Army for voluntary departure.

Mr Cohen, 28, declared "I have 80,000 shekels (£10,000) worth of stock and equipment here. If the Army take us and throw us out and leave all the stuff here to go to waste it will make them look bad."

The Army has told the settlers they will still have two days' grace to pile up their goods and effects but those leaving after Wednesday "will not be given the possibility to return to their homes and help in packing their property....[and] will lose a significant proportion of the economic benefits."

But Mr Cohen said he would rather lose his stock than accept the Army's ultimatum. "I am providing people with a service. And it is also because of my conscience, because of the way I feel about this. I feel violated by it. Nobody came to speak to the business people here about what would happen. We are getting nothing [from the Palestinians] in return for this."

Mr Cohen pointed to his half-empty shelves and said he had bought half a ton of rice at the beginning of the week - all of which, along with the shop's entire stock of bottled water, had now gone. Asked if people were buying up stocks to stay beyond the deadline, he added: "They are not buying it to take to Tel Aviv."

Just what form the stand at Neve Dekalim will take remains unclear.

David Epstein, 17, a high school student from the Israeli town of Rehovot and one of 2,700 outsiders estimated by the Army to have infiltrated the settlement in recent weeks, intends to stay beyond the deadline.

He was warned by his friend in Hebrew "Don't say anything inflammatory" before declaring: "We are praying for a miracle. But if the Army come to take us away we will not use violence." His friend, who declined to give his name, repeated: "We won't go quietly but we won't use violence. Maybe we will tie ourselves to the trees."

Repeating many of the familiar mantras uttered by older settlers, David Epstein, who giggled as he said he had just "walked in" to Gush Katif four days ago past soldiers supposed to turn away infiltrators added: "I think [disengagement from Gaza] is a betrayal of the people by the government. Their rights are being taken away."

Waving his hand at the pleasant tree-lined plaza in front of the town hall, he added: "Look around and imagine all this being given to the Arabs."

But did it make sense for 8,500 Jews to occupy 18 per cent of the land populated by 1.3 million Palestinians? As his friend chipped in "Is it crazy for Israel to be surrounded by the Arab world,"

David Epstein replied defiantly: "To give a prize for terror is more crazy than having 8,000 Jews among Arabs. The Qassam rockets will be fired on Ashkelon, which is a big city, after we have gone."

Not all the younger settlers and their supporters were so expansive.

One of three young men in the large knitted kippas favoured by some far-right settler youths, wore an orange t-shirt emblazoned with an opaque slogan ubiquitous in Neve Dekalim: "The foolish man who rebelled against the King. Who is he?" Answer Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (The King is God).

"We do not speak to the press," he said. "Don't take it personally. It is a national issue." And in the precincts of the settlement's synagogue, one young man reading a prayer book with an M 16 slung over his shoulder smiled as he said: "No journalists allowed here."

While the small settlement of Pe'at Sadah is only three miles to the south, the scene is very different, because all 25 families have either already moved or are moving voluntarily and en bloc, first to a hotel on the Dead Sea and then to Mavkiim, a farming community south of Ashkelon.

With many of the houses already vacated it already resembles - like the northern settlement of Nissanit, where most residents have already departed,- a ghost village. Uprooted palm trees lie on the pavement, many of the distinctive red tiles have been stripped from the roofs. As one of the 60 per cent of settlers the government now estimates will have left voluntarily by Sunday night, Reuven Hania 44, is taking his entire spices nursery -which exports to both Europe, including the UK, and the US -with him.

It wasn't, he says, that he has any ideological objection to Palestinians taking it over, only that the process of negotiation took so long.

Despite still fraught Israeli Palestinian negotiations on other issues - including on the crucial one of border crossings, James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, yesterday sealed a $14m (£7m) deal under which US donors - including Mr Wolfensohn himself - will sell 75 per cent of the greenhouses to the Palestinians through an international fund.

As removal men packed his and his wife Vered's possessions - including their collection of 20 parrots and canaries - Mr Reuven, who, remarkably drives a No 36 Egged bus between Ashkelon and Gush Katif as well as running a five-acre nursery employing 15 Palestinian and one Thai worker, says: "I have requested my Palestinian workers go with me. It will make me very happy if they do. As one of them Mohammed, serves coffee, he adds: "They are like family and they say it will be shit when we have gone. They are very worried."

Mrs Hania, 36, says the entire village stayed up every night considering their future. "We were going to sleep at three or four in the morning, talking about it. But when the demonstrators at Kfar Maimon [four weeks ago] failed to get through to Gush Katif we knew disengagement was going to happen."

The couple admit they and other Pe'at Sadeh residents have been criticised by other settlers for being willing to go voluntarily and Mrs Hania she had an uneasy relationship with diehard opponents in the neighbouring settlement of Atzmona where she worked in the local shop. But last week she said, her critics made it up to her and gave her a farewell present.

While the couple are reconciled to their departure, Mr Hania remains bitter about what the settlers uniformly see as their betrayal by Mr Sharon. Referring to the claim that Mr Sharon devised the whole disengagement plan to hold at bay the scandal that threatened to engulf his son, Omri, over election funding, he says: "In the Bible, it says our forefather Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son for the nation. Sharon has sacrificed the nation for his son."