PEAT SADEH, Gaza Strip – Residents of a small Jewish settlement said Sunday they've struck a deal to move together to a village inside Israel, the first community to agree to be evacuated, giving a boost to the government's contentious Gaza (search) pullout plan.
Peat Sadeh (search), a tiny, upscale farming village tucked into the southwest corner of Gaza 1 1/2 kilometers (one mile) from the Mediterranean Sea, raised the ire of hard-line settler leaders, who are mounting a campaign against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from a part of the West Bank (search) next year.
Sharon's hard-line coalition government fell apart over his sudden policy shift a year ago, forcing him to try to reconstitute his team with the moderate Labor Party, his traditional rival.
In early 2004, Sharon abruptly abandoned decades of work for settlement construction and expansion, calling Gaza' settlements "untenable" because only 8,200 Israelis live there among more than 1 million Palestinians in the impoverished, crowded seaside territory.
Israelis, in contrast, have lived well in Gaza, but their settlements have always been a sore point with the Palestinians. In recent years, mortars and rockets fired by militants in Gaza have rained down on them, and infiltration attempts have multiplied.
At Peat Sadeh, affluence is evident in the neat houses and expensive Mercedes cars parked outside. Residents are farmers and say they do considerable business with their Palestinian neighbors.
"Sharon built this community," said Ella Amin, 39. "He hoped that it would be one of the most beautiful in the area, but the uprising ruined all of our dreams."
Yonatan Bassi, director of the government administration overseeing the Gaza pullout, said the evacuation deal with the residents of Peat Sadeh was reached last week.
He said the settlement's 20 families, joined by five families from other settlements, would move to Mavkiim, a farming village near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, beginning in March.
Residents said they're leaving reluctantly.
"I'm still against it," said Vicki Sabaj, 56, referring to the pullout, "but there's no choice. At least I'll go together with my friends." She did not believe she'd be safer inside Israel. "If I leave, the border moves with me," she said. Mavkiim is just 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Gaza border.
While the Peat Sadeh deal is the first under the government's withdrawal plan, Bassi said officials are negotiating with a "great number" of settlers willing to leave. He declined to give numbers.
Gaza settler spokesman Eran Sternberg disputed Bassi's claim, saying the vast majority of settlers remain opposed to the pullout.
At nightfall Sunday, dozens of settlers and supporters blocked traffic in Tel Aviv around the Defense Ministry, carrying pieces of mortars and rockets that have fallen on Gaza settlements in recent months.
This came as interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made his strongest appeal yet for an end to Palestinian violence against Israel. Abbas, the leading candidate in a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, repeated Arafat's maximalist political positions but said that they must be achieved by political means.
"We want an independent Palestinian state living in peace, side-by-side with Israel, and we want the occupation that began in 1967 to end," Abbas said in a campaign speech to 200 Palestinian businessmen.
"The only choice before us is the path of peace," he said. "Using weapons is impossible and unacceptable and reflects badly on us."
He said the Palestinian state must include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and he again endorsed the Palestinian demand of a right of return for all refugees from the two-year war that followed Israel's creation to their original homes with their descendants — about 4 million people.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, but previous governments have indicated a readiness to compromise over the city and negotiate about borders. However, the "right of return" remains a deal-breaker — Israel charges it is designed to flood the Jewish state with Arabs.
On Sunday, Sharon's Cabinet approved measures meant to help the Jan. 9 Palestinian presidential election go smoothly.
"The Palestinian election is of the utmost importance in choosing a leadership that we hope we will be able to move forward with" in peace talks, Sharon told his ministers.
The package includes easing military restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allowing some campaign activities in disputed east Jerusalem.
Just before the election, the military will pull out of all Palestinian population centers, according to Sunday's decision.
In Gaza violence on Sunday, Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinians crawling toward the border fence near the Bureij refugee camp, the military said. Palestinian security said the two were armed members of the militant Hamas.