Israeli settlers look for deal on withdrawal

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Signs of a crack in the united front shown by most settlers against withdrawal from Gaza emerged as some local leaders urged Ariel Sharon to back the idea of a mass relocation to an undeveloped section of the Israeli coast.

Signs of a crack in the united front shown by most settlers against withdrawal from Gaza emerged as some local leaders urged Ariel Sharon to back the idea of a mass relocation to an undeveloped section of the Israeli coast.

A group of settler representatives met the Israeli Prime Minister yesterday to press for higher compensation for settlers leaving Gaza - itself a sign that increasing numbers of settlers are starting to look for a way out of the standoff over his disengagement plan. But the meeting was also thought to have discussed a radical - and potentially controversial - plan under which the largest block of Gaza settlements would transfer in their entirety across the border to the Nitzanim dunes, a popular and unspoilt stretch of Israeli coastline.

Some settlers' representatives are promoting a plan for 1,700 families in the Gush Katif settlement block to move to a 1,000-acre site on the dunes close to a nature reserve - one of Israel's most popular outdoor recreational areas.

Promoters of the plan - which, if advanced, is likely to run into environmental opposition - insist the plan would not damage the nature reserve but would require the removal of an army base. Hopes by supporters of the plan that Mr Sharon might be favourably inclined have been increased by the involvement in its drafting of Avi Dexler, an associate of the Prime Minister who was made head of the Israel Lands Administration in 1998.

Doubts remain, even if Mr Sharon did favour the plan, that a housing development in Nitzanim would achieve planning permission in the face of strong opposition from environmentalists, weekend visitors and residents of nearby Ashkelon. The area is celebrated for its flora, fauna and even deer herds.

But the fact that at least some settler representatives - despite opposition from their even harder-line colleagues - are prepared to open talks with Mr Sharon will be taken as a confirmation of anecdotal evidence that many, particularly older, settlers are gradually becoming resigned to leaving Gaza before the 20 July deadline for voluntary evacuation.

The dilemma for the large majority of the 8,000 settlers who have not yet opened negotiations with the government's Disengagement Authority has been sharpened by the failure of a series of political initiatives designed to halt the withdrawal plan - culminating in last week's heavy defeat for a bill calling for a referendum.

The emphasis on the Nitzanim possibility - and the calls to increase the compensation levels for settlers of between $200,000 (£105,000) and $300,000 is also a reminder that whatever the Gaza settlers' ideological fixation, many outside the most extreme right and religious groups were motivated partly by seeking to improve their material "quality of life" when they first settled there.

Although the Disengagement Authority has so far received only a few hundred compensation claims, its head, Yonathan Basi, said this week that he expected some 70 per cent to negotiate ahead of the deadline, leaving a significant minority who may be forcibly removed. Some families in Elei Sinai, a secular north Gaza settlement not in Gush Katif, have already threatened to walk to Nitzanim rather than surrender to evacuation and establish a "refugee camp" there if the authorities do not back their plan.

* An Israeli was shot and wounded by a Palestinian gunman yesterday as he worked on a fence in the southern Gaza settlement of Morag.

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