Settlers in bitter split over Gaza pullout

As the army ends its offensive, Sharon's plan to evacuate settlements threatens to split Likud and undermine his leadership
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As pizza places go, Avishai Nativ's could hardly be more bizarrely located.

On a bleak hilltop close to an Israeli army observation post, it affords a first-class view of the refugee camp of Rafah, the Palestinian town which has seen more destruction than any in Gaza over the past four years. "Come at night," says Mr Nativ, cheerfully referring to the gunfire that regularly whistles past his kitchen, a steel container encased in concrete. "You will hear good music."

Mr Nativ's dream of turning this politically supercharged site into a pizzeria and children's water park was sabotaged four years ago by the start of the intifada. Since then he has used his oven here, 200 yards from the Egyptian border, to turn out home delivery pizza for the Jewish settlements of Gush Katif, clustered along the Mediterranean coastline at the southern end of Gaza.

Now even that business has gone belly-up. Mr Nativ complains that it has been boycotted by his neighbours since he made it clear he was ready to take the generous compensation of between $200,000 and $300,000 (£110,000-£165,000) expected to be available to Jewish families, if and when they leave Gaza. With passing soldiers almost his only customers, he claims his business is down by 98 per cent.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, facing a serious revolt within his own Likud Party, has now staked his political future on his plan to evacuate the Gaza settlements, which will be put to the Knesset tomorrow week. Just how difficult it will be for the beleaguered Mr Sharon to secure that backing, while avoiding a split in Likud deep enough to threaten his leadership, was underlined on Monday, when the disengagement rebels ensured the unprecedented defeat of a routine motion noting his opening speech to this winter's Knesset session.

Gaza now overwhelmingly dominates Israeli politics. On Friday night, troops and tanks left the built-up areas of the northern Gaza strip - though not Gaza itself - after a 17-day operation that left 100 Palestinians dead. According to Palestinian sources, some 80 houses were demolished in the Jabalya refugee camp and Beit Lahiya. Some Israeli commentators have suggested that one purpose of the operation - to stop Qassam rockets of the kind which killed two children in Sderot last month - has been to pacify right-wing critics of the disengagement plan. Against this turbulent background, Mr Nativ is one of Mr Sharon's best hopes for turning the extreme right tide of settler-led protest against his plan, despite the pizza man's colourful reputation in this community of a mere 23 families as a maverick with what they claim is a history of money troubles.

In August Mr Nativ provoked fury among his neighbours by inviting represent- atives of Shuvi, a voluntary agency which helps settlers to relocate back in Israel, to his home to meet 11 settlers interested in volunteering to move out. The protesters converged on his house and then used force to prevent the Shuvi delegation from leaving Rafiah Yam.

An unsigned leaflet denounced Mr Nativ and his friend Meir Rothenstein, who runs an electrical store in Neve Dekalim and also wants to leave, for inviting Shuvi in and for telling the media that the settlers "are ready to leave just for more money". The leaflet makes an ominous biblical reference to the story, in Numbers 13 and 14, of the spies sent by Moses into Canaan who returned with a "bad report" about the land. It does not - and perhaps to a settler audience does not need to - quote the end of the story, which is that the spies "were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord".

The 8,000 settlers - compared with well over one million impoverished Palestinians in the rest of Gaza - occupy some 30 per cent of the strip. But Avi Zakouto, a neighbour of Mr Nativ, is "really angry" at even the thought the government might reject the idea that Gaza is part of greater Israel. "If the Palestinians want a state then they should ask the Egyptians to give them Sinai," he adds. "This is the land of the Jews, and that's it."

At the town hall, Eran Sternberg, the settlers' spokesman, dismisses Mr Nativ and Mr Rothenstein as "criminals" and, to underline how he believes the Prime Minister has betrayed the settlement cause he once so zealously espoused, plays on his cellphone a tape of a speech by Mr Sharon 11 years ago, exhorting settlers "not to show weakness". "I voted for him," he adds. "I slept on the streets to persuade people to vote for him. If Sharon has converted, then let him become leader of Labour. We are not extremists. We are saying what Sharon was saying five years ago."

The settlers have now enlisted heavyweight support - including that of Mr Sharon's main rival for the Likud leadership, Binyamin Netanyahu - in their campaign for a referendum, unprecendented in Israeli politics. Repeatedly accusing Mr Sharon of violating "democracy", Mr Sternberg adds: "I think a referendum will save Israel from tearing itself apart, because I know we will win." Although repeated polls show a majority of Israelis are in favour of withdrawal from Gaza, Mr Sharon is resisting the delays that an amendment-strewn passage of a Knesset referendum bill would cause. But there is also a contradiction in the settlers' argument. Mr Sternberg makes it clear that they will continue to resist evacuation even if a referendum goes against their cause.

Avraham Shapira, a far-right former chief rabbi, last week called on soldiers and police not to carry out orders to remove the settlers by force. And tonight Labour, badly shaken by an interview with Dov Weisglass, Mr Sharon's most trusted adviser, saying that disengagement is the means of "freezing" the peace process, will decide whether to continue offering the Prime Minister the backing he may need for the plan.

Meanwhile the fight goes on, despite a lower than expected turnout of settler demonstrators in Israeli cities last week. The leaflet circulated to Avishai Nativ's neigbours uses a quotation from Isaiah as a warning to disengagement supporters: "Form a plan, and it shall be thwarted; make a resolve, and it shall not be carried out, for with us is God!"