Settlers Torn Over Pact to Leave Gaza

An agreement by 38 Israeli families with Israel's government to leave two Gaza Strip (search) settlements in exchange for compensation is tearing apart the small communities: those who signed the deal fear they will be ostracized, and those who insist on staying feel betrayed by their neighbors.

The families make up only a small part of the 8,550 Jewish settlers in Gaza but constitute another chink in what settler leaders have said would be mass resistance to evacuation, set to begin in July.

The details of the compensation were being debated in Israel's parliament and a draft package is expected to be ready in about two months.

It is the largest group, so far, to agree to leave voluntarily. In December, 20 families, making up the entire population of the Peat Sadeh (search) settlement in southern Gaza, decided to resettle in Israel.

The settlements of Nissanit (search) and Elei Sinai (search) were established in the early 1980s on the northeastern edge of Gaza, right on the border with Israel. They attracted mostly secular Israelis seeking a better life, including a view of the Mediterranean and bigger homes.

The two settlements consist of neat single-family homes, surrounded by swaying date palms and well-kept gardens.

The 38 families, 19 from each settlement, agreed to move just a few miles north, to a village near Israel's coastal city of Ashkelon.

However, some of those who signed the deal were reluctant to discuss it. Others denied knowing that such an agreement was even reached, some for fear of ostracism.

Nurit, a Nissanit resident who would only provide her first name, said she was eager to leave the settlement overlooking the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun, but she insisted she had no knowledge of the compensation deal.

Palestinian militants repeatedly have fired mortar bombs and homemade rockets at Nurit's 1,064 residents. Even though the shelling has caused only minor physical damage and few injuries, residents have grown to fear the incoming whistle and subsequent explosions.

"I want to leave here as soon as possible. My children are suffering terribly from the security situation, it's very hard," Nurit said, though she noted that an unofficial cease-fire brought quiet to the area in the last week.

The pastoral atmosphere in Nissanit and Elei Sinai can be deceiving. Signs along the narrow road linking the communities strictly forbid pedestrian movement. Razor wire lines the two sides of the pavement.

Nissanit resident Avinoam Nissim pointed to his recently repaired roof, saying his home had sustained considerable damage in a rocket attack several weeks ago.

The 52-year-old caterer, one of Nissanit's first residents, denied knowledge of the compensation package.

"If anyone is leaving, I certainly don't know who they are," he said.

Elei Sinai resident David Saadon, one of those who signed the agreement, said others planned to do the same but were negotiating in secret. The pact is a memorandum of understanding, contingent on final parliamentary approval of evacuation and compensation.

"We need to be ready for the day after, so we have been acting in a responsible ... way," he told Israel Radio. "If there is an evacuation, approved by law, then those who think we are acting prematurely will at that point have to start doing what we have been doing."