Protesters Take Over Gaza Hotel

Jewish settlers have taken over an abandoned beachfront hotel in the Gaza Strip (search) and plan to move in hundreds of people opposed to Israel's withdrawal this summer.

The settlers spruced up the dilapidated rooms, slapped a fresh coat of plaster on the walls and transformed the Palm Beach Hotel into the settlement outpost of Maoz Hayam, or "Fortress By The Sea."

"It is basic conditions. But people, for the land of Israel, are willing to do this," Nadia Matar, a settler activist leading the hotel project, said Tuesday.

Israeli authorities fear the hotel will become a stronghold of resistance to the pullout, but cannot take any action against the settlers now because the hotel is private property.

Once a thriving vacation spot for Israeli tourists, the hotel was abandoned when Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out 4 1/2 years ago and business dried up.

Thieves stripped it down -- stealing window frames, toilets, kitchen appliances and anything else of value -- and young squatters who liked the beach view and the good surfing took up residence.

Several weeks ago, settlers began preparing the hotel to accommodate families who want to move to Gaza to fight the pullout.

About 20 families now live in the hotel, but Matar hopes to bring in about 100. Donations, including many from abroad, fund the cleanup, she said.

Journalists were barred Tuesday from the hotel, a compound of whitewashed two-story villas surrounded by signs reading "Private property. Entrance forbidden" and guarded by settlers carrying rifles.

From outside, children could be seen planting flowers while men ripped down rotting wood lattices. Women sat out in the sun with their children.

Most of the new families came from West Bank (search) settlements, said Ora Binyamin, a 20-year-old hotel resident.

Among those walking through the courtyard were Itamar Ben Gvir and Baruch Marzel, extremists with ties to the outlawed Kach movement, founded by the U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was murdered in New York in 1990.

Matar said she hopes flooding the Gaza settlements with people will torpedo Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan, which she called "a kind of terror attack."

"I am ashamed to admit that Sharon (search) has become the right hand man of Hamas (search) and is implementing their plan of ejecting Jews from the Land of Israel, capitulating to terror," she said, referring to the Islamic militant group that has carried out hundreds of attacks on Israelis in recent years.

Sharon says Israel needs to pull out of Gaza to strengthen its hold on major West Bank settlements. Polls show most Israelis support the pullout.

The hotel renovation is one of several projects undertaken by Matar's group.

In the seaside settlement of Shirat Hayam, just down the beach from the hotel, settlers are refurbishing a string of abandoned buildings that were vacation villas for Egyptians before Israel captured Gaza in 1967.

Many of the villas were little more than roofless, windowless skeletons of cracked concrete filled with sand and garbage.

Over the past few weeks, volunteers built wood frames for the roofs and covered them with red tiles, poured concrete floors, plastered walls and installed electrical, water and septic systems. On Tuesday, a bathtub, five toilets and a water heater lay scattered in the sand waiting to be installed.

"When the government made its decision, we knew we couldn't sit by quietly," said Rivka Livnat, 47, from the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, who moved into one of the new houses several weeks ago.

Many insist they can foil the pullout, despite parliamentary and Cabinet approval.

Livnat, the sister-in-law of Education Minister Limor Livnat, sat in her unfinished living room, looking at the sky through a gap in the roof, and said she intended to stay long after the summer.

"We are going to have nice houses here," she said.