Exodus begins for Gaza settlers as withdrawal plan gathers pace

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The Independent Online

An exodus is under way in Gaza four days before the Israeli army issues marching orders to the 1,500 settler families in the strip.

Officials reported that 861 families had so far applied for compensation for the move, while hundreds more were negotiating. The disengagement authority has handed over keys to 133 families for new homes in Nitzan, a purpose-built suburb near Ashkelon. Another 50 have signed contracts to join them. They include 100 families from Neve Dekalim, the biggest of the settlements and one of the most defiant.

Despite demonstrations of support this week in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, most families in the 21 settlements are coming to terms with the fact that they will have to go. If they do not sign up by Sunday, they risk losing 30 per cent of their compensation, averaging a million shekels (£122,000).

In the small farming community of Pe'at Sadeh, all 25 families were packing their possessions yesterday ready to move en bloc to Mavki'im, an ageing agricultural co-operative across the border on the Mediterranean coast. They plan to leave on Sunday before the soldiers arrive. "It's very sad, very hard," Motti Levy, a resident, said, "but we're getting our stuff into the containers. The new homes are almost ready and we're bringing in equipment so that we can start growing our herbs and vegetables again for export."

The army has also tightened restrictions on Israelis entering the Gaza Strip, with entry permits being issued only to Gaza residents, those involved in the evacuation or those who are providing essential services.

Officials have admitted that 2,700 right-wing extremists entered the strip from the West Bank to resist the pullout.Security forces are deploying 55,000 soldiers and police to empty the settlements and prevent any more disengagement opponents reaching the Gaza Strip.