Beauty of the orange grove is crushed as Sharon prepares to move Gaza's settlers

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The Independent Online

The sinking sun across the Mediterranean was a deep red and the birds in full pre-twilight chorus as Hananiya Cohen switched off his engine. We were at the edge of what had been, 24 hours earlier, a mature, secluded orange grove at the foot of the dunes that help make this Israel's most famous area of coastal beauty.

The sinking sun across the Mediterranean was a deep red and the birds in full pre-twilight chorus as Hananiya Cohen switched off his engine. We were at the edge of what had been, 24 hours earlier, a mature, secluded orange grove at the foot of the dunes that help make this Israel's most famous area of coastal beauty.

The normally talkative Meir Dahan, a former rabbi and the local representative on the Ashkelon Coast Regional Council, was left speechless by the sight that Mr Cohen had brought him to see. Some 100 of the trees, still in fruit, were lying on the ground.

As we slithered back through the sand in Mr Cohen's four-wheel-drive, Mr Dahan, who represents Nitzan, an open-minded little religious community, muttered: "This is the end of Nitzan."

Whatever the exact reasons for the destruction - and Mr Dahan is convinced they are all too clear - it symbolised for him what many residents see as the intolerably high social and environmental cost of trying to persuade most of the 8,500 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip to relocate to this area, famous for its wildlife and flora.

For Mr Dahan's suspicion is that the destroyed trees - in a grove that Mr Cohen said he regularly visited to "be alone and think" - have been cleared to make way for the services and homes that Ariel Sharon's government is pressing the settlers to accept as the best alternative to the unspoilt Gaza beaches they are being forced to leave behind.

Mr Dahan is among several dozen Nitzan residents who are planning to petition the High Court against the plan to place at least 320 caravans as temporary homes for settlers from Gush Katif, which they say would despoil the "beautiful nature" of Nitzan and turn the community into a potential slum.

The scheme - which is intended as an added lure to the Gaza residents by making their second, permanent, move easier - is also strongly opposed by the rest of the regional council and by Shalom Simhon, the Labour Enviromental Minister in Ariel Sharon's coalition government.

This not quite the nimbyism it seems. For while Nitzan is deeply split over the settlers' potentially imminent arrival, under Mr Dahan's leadership it has already agreed to a carefully formulated plan to build, over the next one to three years, 500 permanent homes for the residents of Gush Katif, the biggest settlement block in Gaza.

What it objects to is the temporary homes - and the big expansion of the long-term plan that the government would ideally like as an incentive to a "critical mass" of settlers to leave voluntarily en masse.

Mr Dahan, together with his wife Hagit - the couple have three children - have carefully built up this mainly professional community of 100 families on the Israeli coast a few miles north of Gaza. The residents were drawn partly by a love of nature - but also by a spirit of mutual tolerance of differing religious -and political - opinion.

"I believe we have a civic duty to accept many of our brothers from Gush Katif," says Mr Dahan, who is convinced of the need for Israelis to leave Gaza.

But explaining that the community - in stark contrast to the settlers - has deliberately chosen to have no rabbi to lay down spiritual authority, he adds: "We love to debate freely on a very wide range of subjects. We are right and left. We do not want to be too dominated by the settlers who are of one colour."

More practically, he says the infrastructure, particularly the single, narrow and unlit road into Nitzan, is woefully inadequate for the hastily devised caravan plan, of which the local people were told only three weeks ago. Environmentally, he says, the creation of the temporary homes, which like Shalom Simhon he fears could become permanent, is "a disaster".

The stakes are high in this dispute, which reflects a wider tension between settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories and many of those who have chosen to build small cohesive communities within Israel itself.

This week the government said that 430 out of more than 1,000 Gush Katif familes had expressed interest in the Nitzanim plan -a figure that the settlers' leaders strongly contend is exaggerated - and gave them a one-week deadline to sign up for it.

On Tuesday - the day before trees were felled - Mr Sharon visited the area and was seen on national television banging on the hood of a car and haranguing officials. "There's not a minute to spare," he said. "You keep discussing, you keep requesting, you keep consulting. We've agreed on this: [now] get to work!" .

To prove his point about free debate, Mr Dahan cited his wife, who unlike him is on the political right. She believes that "Gaza is in Israel like the whole land has been since Abraham" and welcomes the arrival of the settlers, but is also critical of the government for its lack of infrastructure planning.

Mr Cohen who runs a hi-tech consultancy and is emphatically opposed to settlements, said: "They will come here with a very fixed ideology, believing in no negotiation about anything, wanting the children in school to read the Bible all morning and so on, and not being prepared to compromise."

He added: "Meir Dahan said on television he was ready to hug the settlers. Well I want to hug them too. I just don't want to hug them here."

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