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Settlers pray for a miracle to stop Sharon In the first of a two-part series, MARK MacKINNON visits a defiant, but doomed, community

In the first of a two-part series, MARK MacKINNON visits a defiant, but doomed, community

With a report from Carolynne Wheeler in Jerusalem

KFAR DAROM, GAZA STRIP

e are likely some of the last chapters to be written in the history of Kfar Darom, a battle-scarred Jewish outpost in the heart of the Gaza Strip.

In two weeks, Israeli soldiers and police are scheduled to come and drag away any of the settlement's 400-plus residents who won't leave on their own. Then, the bulldozers will come and demolish their homes behind them.

But instead of panic, an odd sense of calm hovers over this heavily fortified settlement. A quiet confidence reigns, based in a belief beyond reason that somehow Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull the 8,500 settlers out of the Gaza Strip will be thwarted and they will continue living at Kfar Darom just as they have since it was founded in 1989.

On a Thursday afternoon, this tightly knit community held a pair of celebrations. One was the bat mitzvah of a 12-year-old girl, the other was the inauguration of a new "neighbourhood" of supporters who have moved in over the past few weeks. Both were acts of defiance by a community that insists it's not going anywhere.

"We're continuing like normal. We continue to plant, to grow things here. We continue to celebrate happy things, like bat mitzvahs," says Asher Mivtzari, a 48-year-old teacher and community spokesman with thick spectacles and a thicker beard. "We continue," he repeats.

If anyone is making plans for starting a new life after the police come -- expected to be some time shortly after Mr. Sharon's four-stage disengagement plan begins Aug. 15 -- they're hiding it from their neighbours. No one in the community will admit to having spoken with the government body assigned to oversee the Gaza pullout and find new homes for the settlers.

Kfar Darom, one of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, is an example of why the government is planning to leave the tiny stretch of territory after a 38-year occupation, and why the settlers are loath to go.

It is a land of striking natural beauty, of palm trees and sun-drenched neighbourhoods with a South Florida feel. The settlers have invested much of their lives here, and take great pride in having "made the desert bloom."

Despite two intifadas, during which five Kfar Darom residents were killed, the area has become famous, and affluent, as a result of its specialized kosher lettuce, grown in the settlement's hothouses and exported around the world. Leaving it would be giving up on a dream.

"When we came to this place, it was just a desert. There was nothing but empty sand. No one believed we could grow something here, but we succeeded," Mr. Mivtzari says.

"Sharon's plan is not disengagement, it's a retreat. It would be the first time in all the history of Israel that Israel goes back in the middle of the war with the terrorists. It would be the biggest victory for Islam in the last 100 years."

But the troubles Israel took on by embarking on the settlement project after its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War are as plain to see as the palm trees. Unlike neighbouring settlements in the main Gush Katif block -- where some of the more luxurious homes would likely be worth upward of $1-million if they were located anywhere but a war zone -- you can't see the pale blue Mediterranean from Kfar Darom.

Instead, the community is a surrounded by concrete barriers, watchtowers and dug-in tanks. They live surrounded by more than a million Palestinian residents of Gaza hostile to the settlers' presence.

For most of the past decade, it has taken between one and three divisions of 10,000 soldiers each to defend the settlers and enable them to carry out their daily business, a number that has rarely dipped below 20,000 soldiers since the last intifada began in 2000.

"We have to decide what is more important and less important," says Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman.

Some of the thousands of dollars spent annually on defending the Gaza settlements, he says, can now be diverted to defending larger West Bank settlements claimed by Israel as a permanent part of the state, or to building the security barrier -- a series of fences, trenches and high concrete walls -- that will separate Israelis and Palestinians.

The settlers, who have received housing and agricultural subsidies as well as tax breaks, are eligible for compensation packages ranging from $175,000 to $350,000 (U.S.), although that amount will decrease for those who don't apply before the August deadline.

The costs, however, are much greater than monetary: Many supporters of the so-called disengagement say the settlements, beyond taking up about 40 per cent of Gaza's coastline and 30 per cent of its water supply, damage Israel's international reputation, cost soldiers' lives and block any real attempts at peace.

"It's morally very, very wrong," says Janet Aviad, a 26-year member of the Peace Now activist group. "Rationally, the only thing for Israel to do to guarantee its future is to end the occupation."

Further proof of the settlers' determination to stay lies in Rachel and Moshe Saperstein, who trust that God will intervene to stop Mr. Sharon, and bestow one more miracle on the residents of Gush Katif. She broadcasts her faith in this to anyone who will listen; he, a veteran who lost his right arm in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, cloaks his in black humour.

"Sharon's not winning. It's exploding in his face. He's losing. Just take a look at all the orange around," Ms. Saperstein says, referring to the colour adopted by the anti-withdrawal activists.

A poll released early in July by Tel Aviv University's centres for peace studies and conflict resolution showed 54 per cent of Jewish Israelis in favour of withdrawal, compared with 41 per cent opposed. Yet balconies and car antennae around the country have been festooned with orange ribbons, handed out for free by the children of the settlers and their allies.

The 64-year-old grandmother adds with a smile that she's invited 30 people to stay at her house during August, hoping to make the job of the police and soldiers that much more difficult to accomplish.

It's only at the end of a two-hour conversation that Ms. Saperstein reveals anything but steely confidence. Walking through the carefully sculpted garden that surrounds her four-bedroom bungalow, she pauses beside each individual plant and tree and talks about the difficulties she faced getting them to grow. It feels like a farewell tour; everything she says is in the past tense.

"They will take this garden, this paradise, and turn it into a refugee camp," she suddenly blurts in anger. "Ariel Sharon and 68 men of the Knesset [Israel's parliament] say 'Rachel Saperstein, you cannot live in your home any more.' "

Her combative voice breaks for a moment as the confidence slips away, and she briefly acknowledges what most see as inevitable: In a few weeks time, she will be forced to leave this place, likely forever.

"What they're doing to the people is just so cruel," she says weakly.

Moments later, the guard is back up. "They won't take me out easily. Neither me, nor my husband."

Tomorrow: For the Palestinians, the pullout represents hope for the next generation.

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