January 27, 2005
Settlement Might Relocate En Masse
Nestled in a green valley dotted with fir and palm trees lies the farming village of Mavki'im.
Soon the modest one-story homes that punctuate its wheat and potato fields may house a new group of residents -- former members of the Gaza Strip settlement named Pa'at Sadeh.
Pa'at Sadeh's 17 families are the first Jewish settlers to reach an agreement in principle with the government to relocate as a group inside Israel if Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip, and the compensation offered them sheds light on what other settlers can expect if the disengagement plan moves forward.
In a deal negotiated with the government's disengagement authority, Pa'at Sadeh residents agreed to move to the moshav in exchange for plots of land similar in size to the ones they'd be leaving. The authority is overseeing compensation packages and relocation logistics.
"We are working on other matches between settlements, some to existing areas and others for totally new developments that can absorb them," said Haim Altman, spokesman for the Disengagement Authority.
Taking a page from the hard lessons learned from the wrenching evacuation of Yamit, a Sinai settlement, in 1982, Altman said the government is trying to encourage settlers to move as intact communities. The hope is that a communal move would make the experience of evacuation and transition less traumatic.
Altman acknowledged that relatively few settlers so far have come to consult with the authority on how they might best make a move before the withdrawal, which is expected to begin in July.
"Very few are coming to us," he said, adding that those who do come usually do so very quietly, fearing fallout from their neighbors. "There is great pressure within the settlements not to talk to us. People say, 'What if my neighbor knew?' and we cannot tell him that just yesterday that same neighbor was here in our offices, too."
The decision by Pa'at Sadeh, a secular community in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the southern Gaza Strip, stands in contrast to the more defiant stance taken by neighboring settlements that have vowed to fight the disengagement plan.
The general manager of Mavki'im, a 50-family moshav just south of Ashkelon founded in 1949 by Hungarian immigrants, said that although the disengagement plan appears to be moving forward, the future is anything but certain.
"We don't know if it will happen. I don't think even Arik Sharon knows if it will happen," 66-year-old Yossi Zohar said, using a nickname for the Israeli prime minister.
Despite an atmosphere of uncertainty, the government is proceeding with its plans. The Knesset is expected to approve government-sponsored legislation outlining compensation packages and setting out the terms of disengagement for the approximately 7,500 settlers in the Gaza Strip.
The legislation sets terms as well for the several hundred settlers in a part of the northern West Bank from which Israel also plans to withdraw.
The government plan would pay evacuated settler families between $100,000 to $400,000 in reparation packages. The disengagement bill, now being debated in a Knesset committee, calls for prison terms for settlers who resist evacuation from their homes with violence. The estimated cost for evacuating and relocating the settlers is about $1.15 billion, according to the Disengagement Authority.
Settlers would receive different compensation packages depending on a complex formula based on their ages, how long they have lived in their homes, whether the home was bought or rented, its size and how many children live at home. In addition, settlers who decide to move to the Negev or Galilee, areas where the government wants to boost development and the Jewish population, would receive another $30,000 per family.
Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Gush Katif settlement bloc, said that local leaders at first told residents that on principle they should not even consult with the Disengagement Authority about possible compensation. Later, as the amounts people could expect to receive became public, Sternberg said there was no need to tell people not to go.
"The prime minister did the work for us ... because the money they are talking about is so low that even those who would consider compensation are no longer considering it," he said.
The Disengagement Authority complains that Jewish settler leaders and municipalities are not cooperating.
"What is important is the personal connection between ourselves and them, the faith and the transparency of the process. said Altman, the authority's spokesperson. "But the problem is that the officials are not cooperating. It makes our work much more difficult."
Altman said the authority tries to explain to settlers that it's in their interest to look into compensation options and that they should view it as if they were buying insurance: If the evacuation doesn't happen they will have lost nothing, and if it does, they'll be prepared.
A grassroots organization called Shuvi, Hebrew for "Come Back," was established last year. Its goal is to encourage Israel to withdraw from Gaza as quickly as possible. Since Sharon announced the disengagement plan, Shuvi has received dozens of calls from settlers seeking advice on how to leave the Gaza Strip.
One of the dilemmas those willing to leave face is whether or not to take a $50,000 advance on compensation to move from their homes before the withdrawal is carried out. Most have decided not to take the advance payment, saying it's not enough to live off in the interim.
"We recommend people to try to get the compensation papers and fill them out, so that when things do start happening they'll be prepared," said Dorit Eldar, a social work lecturer at Tel Aviv University who is one of Shuvi's founders.
Standing outside the gate to Mavki'im, Zohar, the moshav's manager, said he feels sympathy for the settlers and would be happy to have them join him and the other families here.
"First of all, they are Jews. I would not want to be in their place," he said. "Together with them we can improve our property and it will help them, it will help us, it will help Israel. So why not?"