Is this the Promised Land?

Jewish settlers face eviction from Gaza in July. The move has provoked outrage - and only a minority will leave voluntarily. Donald Macintyre hears the plans of two very different families
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On a grey, blustery day, when the Mediterranean breakers come crashing on to its pristine beach, Shirat Hayam, where Rabbi Pinchas Etzion set up home with his wife Anat and three small children last week, is a desolate place. The bleak ruins of the little holiday villas once used, before the Six Day War in 1967, by the Egyptian army officers then occupying Gaza, make it seem all the more abandoned. But for Pinchas, struggling today against the wind to keep his kippa in position on his head, the decision to rent the only empty caravan of the 13 embedded in the sand along the shore here was one of great political and religious significance. For at the very moment when the government of Ariel Sharon is doing all it can to cajole the 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza into moving out before they face forcible evacuation in July, the Etzions, in an act of defiant solidarity, are moving in.

Partly, their arrival in the remotest of all the communities in Gush Katif, the biggest Jewish settlement block, was dictated by family piety. Anat's parents and grandparents are long-standing Gaza settlers. "We are very related to Gush Katif," says Pinchas. "That's why we came here. We believe the evacuation will not happen. We pray that it will not happen. But we have come to empower the family, to embrace them and be with them."

Recent political events do not bear out the view of the Etzions, who have left their own (unthreatened) Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, that disengagement from Gaza "will not happen". Not only has Ariel Sharon staked his political life on dismantling the 21 Gaza settlements, but every political attempt by the Israeli far right to stop it, culminating in last month's defeat for a bill demanding a referendum on the plan, has failed. And when he visits Crawford, Texas, next week, the Israeli Prime Minister will hardly need President Bush to remind him that the US's consistently generous support for his policies is wholly dependent on the plan going ahead - and on time.

But for the Etzions, an absolute spiritual belief in the right of Israeli Jews to settle in - and control - a strip populated by 1.3 million impoverished Palestinians, leads them to suppose that the settlers may be saved before the 20 July deadline by, as Pinchas puts it, "something stronger than reality". A miracle? "Yes, maybe a miracle that will stop this happening." But if not? Pointing to the shelves of religious texts along one roughly whitewashed wall, he says: "I will take a holy book and read it. I won't throw stones. I won't fight soldiers. But if they want me to go they'll have to take me. I won't go of my own volition."

Refusing to discuss the details of whether he expects his wife and children - all under five - to share in this trauma, Pinchas says he prays the violent confrontations with troops predicted by some settler leaders won't happen. "The law is for one Jew to love another. But if something happens this will be the responsibility of Sharon. He didn't go for a referendum. He went against the wishes of [the ruling party] Likud. He is putting the settlers in a corner and it is very dangerous to put people in a corner."

Among rabbis deeply opposed to the withdrawal from Gaza, there is a split over whether soldiers should be allowed to disobey orders to evacuate the settlers. But Pinchas, who is himself a reservist and teaches religious students about to go into the army, is in no doubt that soldiers have biblical authority to refuse evacuation orders. "How could I remove Anat's parents, or her grandparents, who are the loveliest people I know? I know the second I was asked to do it, I would fall unconscious. I would find myself in hospital; I couldn't deal with it." He is in no doubt that Gaza is as much part of the "greater Israel" to which religious settlers adhere as Tel Aviv or Ashkelon. "In the Bible it says that the place where you put your feet in Israel is yours. There is no reason why we have to leave. We have to keep strong: we can't be weak because we have given enough."

When Pinchas says that Sharon's plan is "bad for the Jews", Anat insists that it is "bad for the Arabs too". She says her father's Palestinian agricultural employees and other Palestinians who work for Jewish settlers are inevitably a tiny minority of those who live in Gaza. "They say, 'if you go we will be in danger [from other Palestinians] and without work'." But Anat also says she has the "security" of knowing that God will determine the outcome of the present struggle. If disengagement happens "it will be because God decides it's best it happens. Maybe God thinks that it's not the moment to stay here, or the Jewish people aren't yet ready to be here. But in the meantime we have to try our best to stay. That is our role." Pinchas adds on a final, defiant, note: "If they take us away, we believe we are going to come back. History will show it's our land, so we will be back."

Yet none of this dogma informs the thinking of another settler couple, Yossi, a police officer, and his wife, Sigal Barda. Elei Sinai, 20 miles up the coast, is a hard place to leave. Fifteen years ago the Bardas built their four-bedroom ranch-style bungalow. The beach is a mere one-minute walk away. Picasso reproductions hang on the walls, and their 16-year-old son Meitar's carved chess-set is laid out by the fireplace. After six years of living in the urban anonymity of Kiryat Gat across the border in Israel, Sigal says that when they moved to this settlement of just 80 families - not unlike a gated oceanside community in California - it seemed like "going on vacation". Yet Sigal and Yossi are impatient to implement their decision to leave the home they and their three children have grown to love. To the dismay, and in some cases fury, of a large majority of their neighbours, they are negotiating their passage out in accordance with the government decision to evacuate Gaza which they - highly unusually among settlers - say they agree with.

Not that the process was easy. Although the Bardas are set to receive compensation of between $200,000 and $300,000, they are still negotiating with the Disengagement Authority for a new place to live, and face two years living in a prefab on a kibbutz while their new house is built. But, unlike the 69 Elei Sinai families still digging in, at least they know their eventual destination: a community near Ashkelon with 38 other voluntarily departing settler families from northern Gaza. Sigal says that they discussed their decision as a family: their two daughters, aged 19 and 12, are understanding, but their son Meitar has taken it badly, saying at one point "they will have to take me away in chains".

But his father takes a much wider - and more far-sighted - view of the disengagement plan. "It's not just a good decision. It's an excellent decision, economically and politically," says Yossi. "I know Gaza very well, and if you have worked there you understand that there is nothing for the Israelis to look for from Gaza. I hope that this will bring a big change for the Palestinians and for us. I know history suggests otherwise but I really want to believe that at the end it will help to bring a new peace agreement."

But even more unusually, Yossi goes further still. No final decision has been taken by Israel on whether the homes will be destroyed, but Sigal says that although she has tried "to listen to my head and not my heart" she still finds it impossible to come to terms with Palestinians living in their house after they leave. Yossi disagrees: "I have thought a lot about this. I would like the houses to be given to those [Palestinians] whose houses have been destroyed by us in military operations, whether in the Philadelphia Road [on Gaza's conflict-ravaged southern border] or elsewhere." He certainly doesn't want the houses given, say, to the officers and the élite of the Palestinian Authority instead of "those who really need this". But he adds: "If we don't do this, what is the future; what are we giving them? If we give them the settlement as it is, we are giving them hope. I think we should keep this process positive and give the other side a good chance. Maybe it's all a balloon that will explode but maybe not. I have known [Palestinian] people here for many years - I'm not saying as friends - but I have had really good relations with them. The Palestinians have their extremists, as we do, but most of them want to live in peace."

This is unlikely to go down well with many of the Bardas' neighbours. For the once tight-knit Elei Sinai community of 80 households has been deeply split by their - and 10 other families' - decision to go. One prominent resident, Arik Orpaz, for example, long had a dream that the entire settlement would decamp across the border to the beautiful dunes of Nitzanim - the very place settler leaders on Tuesday urged Sharon to consider as the home for all 8,000 Jews living in Gaza - and name their new community Leron-Orpaz after his daughter and her boyfriend, who were shot dead by Palestinian militants in October 2001. He still plans for the majority to walk en masse on 20 July to Nitzanim, and if necessary set up what he calls a "refugee camp". Still deeply scarred by his daughter's death, he says he sees the split as a betrayal of his daughter's memory, and adds: "We always said we would do whatever we did together." Although there is still a frosty politeness between the two sides, none of the 11 families felt able to go to this year's community party for the religious festival of Purim, and Orpaz accuses the 11 families of being "chicken" for negotiating with the Disengagement Authority.

But this is hardly fair on a family who have thought as deeply about their future as the Bardas have. "I want to move now as soon as I can," says Sigal. "I don't want the children to see soldiers here. I want them to remember the place as it was. If they stayed to the last moment they would remember only soldiers and perhaps violence. If it's going to be violent I want to save them from that." Is she prepared to admit in retrospect that the settlements actually contributed to the conflict? There is a long pause before she replies: "Yes. It's not the whole problem but it's part of it. I hope the future will be better. I hope if I am giving up my house, I didn't give it for nothing. If there is real peace in every part of Israel it will be much easier to continue my life."

Neither the Bardas nor the Etzions are exactly typical. There are signs of a new mood of resigned acceptance - especially among older Gaza settlers. In one respect the Bardas and the Etzions are similar. In contrast, you can't help thinking, to many settlers in Gaza, for neither family is the financial compensation going to be the deciding issue. For the Etzions it is a matter of religion and ideology; for the Bardas it's security for their children in both the domestic and wider political sense.

But otherwise they are polar opposites. As a reservist, Pinchas will refuse to take part in the evacuation; Yossi, despite an exemption for policemen living in the settlements, is willing to volunteer to do so. The Etzions will stay to the bitter end in a dilapidated caravan; the Bardas now want to leave a handsome house they love. The Etzions have just brought their children into what will soon become a closed military zone; the Bardas want to take their children out before the soldiers come.

It isn't hard to say which couple has the more hopeful message for the future.