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Locals may profit from pullout fever at Gaza frontier

Special to The Globe and Mail

ESHKOL REGION, ISRAEL

e are exciting times for the Grubers' Cactus Farm.

In the hot, dry days of late June, when the number of visitors looking for a few peaceful days at the family's five-acre desert farm begins to dwindle and the focus usually turns to their cactus nursery, the Grubers are instead gearing up for a busy summer.

Sheila Gruber, an American Israeli who operates the farm with her agronomist husband, usually plies guests with unique greenhouses, cactus gardens and the appeal of gourmet meals and sleeping under the stars in the Negev desert, just a half hour's drive from the edge of the Gaza Strip.

But now, the Grubers are printing new business cards, helping put together a new glossy pamphlet about area attractions, adding their farm to a new map of the region and planning to open a new pub.

Just a few weeks remain before an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 journalists from around the globe converge on the remote region to cover Israel's removal of more than 8,000 settlers and soldiers from Gaza. "It could be quite a mess. But on the other hand, we have to take advantage of it," Tovi Shul, the region's manager of strategic planning and economics, said in an interview. "It's going to be a hard time, but it's also going to be an opportunity. We can use it to our benefit if we are smart."

This week, three busloads of foreign and Israeli journalists took a one-day tour of the region courtesy of the Eshkol Regional Council, which is trying to turn the controversy over the withdrawal into an economic boost for its residents.

Added to the journalists the bulked-up military and police presence, Mr. Shul said area officials have been told to expect up to 50,000 visitors. "That's five times the population of this area," he said.

The council represents 29 communities containing 10,500 residents. None are wealthy, and extensive road closings during the three-week pullout will make the situation even more difficult, Mr. Shul said. But the region does have one major asset: Its council offices, which have been designated as the media headquarters for the event.

They expect to spend more than one million shekels ($268,000), half of that government-subsized, to set up restaurants, a broadcast studio, Internet connections and toilets at the council building. And employees are working overtime to promote semi-private co-operative farms with private cabins, swimming pools, spas and other luxuries.

"In the period of time of the disengagement, it will be the focus in this country. Everyone will be looking to us, and we want it to look nice," Mr. Shul said. "It's a good opportunity to expose ourselves to the country and to the world."

Many of those with space to spare are installing or expanding Internet services and satellite television for hoped-for guests.

But even as the preparations continue, residents both critics and supporters of the Gaza withdrawal fear it will turn violent. Anti-disengagement groups were also blamed for oil slicks and nails on a major Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway yesterday morning that punctured the tires of 20 cars. "There's going to be a lot of people around and we're hoping they'll use our facilities -- but then, we also know what they're here for," Ms. Gruber said.

"We hope [the Gaza withdrawal] will go smoothly, but there are some fanatics who will resist. What is scary is that you don't know. We're just hoping for the best."

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