|Jewish settlers who plan to withdraw from Gaza look at map of northern West Bank |
The majority of Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip have agreed to move voluntarily to new homes inside Israel ahead of the planned evacuation of all Gaza settlements in August. According to Israeli media more than 1,000 settler families living in the Gush Katif settlement block in Gaza have signed a letter for presentation to Israel's High Court, saying that if the government insists that they must move, they will do so voluntarily as a group.
They are thus meeting a deadline set by the Justice Minister to either agree to the move or risk not being evacuated together as one community and lose other resettlement benefits.
Speaking on Israel radio, Meir Shim'oni of the Gaza settlement council, cast the settlers' wishes in a different light, making it clear relocation is not their first preference.
He said what the people really want is to stay together as a group - in Gush Katif.
About 8500 Israelis live in 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip. It's foreseen that most of them will be relocated just up the coast, around Nitzanim, a strip of desirable beach front land near the southern city of Ashkelon.
Over the past several months a number of settlers have indicated they would move voluntarily ahead of the government's planned mass evacuation. Some of them complained of being ostracized by other settler families who remain opposed to the disengagement.
The decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to remove all settlements from the Gaza Strip and four small ones from the northern West Bank has sharply divided Israeli society. Opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis favors disengagement, but a vocal minority remains opposed and has staged street protests to make that point. Some have vowed passive resistance to attempts by police and soldiers to remove them from their homes. Others have even hinted of violence.
Mr. Sharon has said the disengagement is necessary to enhance Israel's overall security and to strengthen its control over the much larger Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank.
Palestinians welcome any Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian land, but they have said all along that the disengagement plan is Mr. Sharon's way of ensuring Israeli control over West Bank land. Palestinians want Gaza, the West Bank and traditionally Arab East Jerusalem for their future independent state.