Defiant Gaza settlers vow they won't go quietly

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WITH just three weeks to go before Israel withdraws from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank, you will find no sign of packing cases or quotes from removal companies in the Goldschmidts' comfortable villa in the Gaza settlement of Ganei Tal.

But with Gaza now closed off as a military zone and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon determined to implement his disengagement plan from August 15, reality is finally kicking in for the Goldschmidts and other Israeli settler families who for so long had passionately hoped the day would never come when they would have to leave their homes.

"I'm so outraged now, I'm so mad with my government and my country and the anti-Semitic laws they have legislated," said Rivka Goldschmidt, 54, an English teacher at a local school. "Sharon said he has a national goal to throw me out of my home. So I have a goal and that is to take the best lawyer in the country and sue Sharon and his government for everything they have.

"When my sons went into the army, did I question the government? No, because I knew they had a duty to protect this country from its enemy, and all of a sudden, I've become the enemy of this country."

As the date of the Gaza pullout draws closer, both Sharon and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas are beset by growing internal pressures, with one facing daily demonstrations from anti-withdrawal protesters and the other confronting Palestinian militants who see Israel's withdrawal as a victory for their violent resistance to the occupation.

The recent flare-up of violence which threatened the five-month-old ceasefire between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants led US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to hastily schedule a visit to the region in the last few days in a show of support for the two leaders.

After the meeting in Ramallah yesterday, Rice praised Abbas for his efforts to clamp down on militants. However, she said there was still more work to be done by the Palestinian leadership.

In recent days, Palestinian forces have twice clashed with Hamas gunmen. The Palestinians have been under intense Israeli and US pressure to rein in the militants ahead of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Rice met Sharon last Friday where she again called on him to ensure proper co-ordination with the Palestinians in the lead-up to the pullout. She also reminded the Israelis that disengagement must be seen as a step towards a return to negotiations.

Rice repeated her call for Palestinian officials to dismantle the militant wings of organisations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and to ensure that Israel does not withdraw from Gaza under fire.

Her request came as Hamas officials openly talk about how their violent resistance to the occupation - and not negotiations - has led to Israel's withdrawal.

Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, last week loudly dismissed Abbas's call for an end to the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel proper and its Jewish settlements in Gaza. "The rockets have forced Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and they will end the occupation in the future," he said.

"It's the resistance, and not negotiations, that brought about the end of the occupation."

In the meantime, only one third of Gaza's 8,000 settlers have applied for compensation that would allow them to leave their homes. The others, such as the Goldschmidts, are expected to stay in their properties waiting for the police and soldiers to turn up after August 15 - the date from which no Israeli will be allowed to reside in Gaza or the four settlements of Kadim, Ganim, Homesh and Sanur in the northern West Bank.

A few minutes drive from the Goldschmidts' home, Rivka's South African-born husband, Michael, is working 18-hour days to harvest more than 300,000 amaryllis bulbs from the family's greenhouses before Israeli forces evacuate the settlement's 80 families.

"We're going through hell, we can't sleep at night," the 57-year-old farmer said. "Do you know who came here, as the country's then defence minister, to celebrate the opening of this settlement 28 years ago? Ariel Sharon, that's who. Nobody would have ever believed then that this same person would have us thrown out of our homes."

When asked what will happen when the knock comes at the front door, Rivka breaks down and cries. "I'll just stare into the faces of those Jewish soldiers and police officers and ask them 'how can one Jew banish another?'

"We believe in non-violence," the mother-of-four added. "And we will go but we won't go quietly."