'Sharon is behaving like a dictator'

For Eitan Braun, a Jewish settler in the Gaza Strip, the equation is simple: “If Ariel Sharon falls, I get to keep my house.”

If the Israeli Prime Minister has his way, Braun and 8 000 fellow settlers will be uprooted from their homes next year as part of a wider plan that also envisages the strengthening of Israeli control over West Bank settlements.

But opponents of the project are taking increasing heart from Sharon’s difficulties in garnering enough support for a parliamentary majority, underlined by an embarrassing defeat on Tuesday when MPs voted down his speech marking the opening of the winter session.

Sharon is struggling to find new coalition partners, having lost his parliamentary majority back in June following the departure from the government of traditional allies who were appalled by his Gaza withdrawal plan.

But he faces a race against time if he wants to be sure of the arithmetic before Parliament gives its verdict on the disengagement plan on October 25.

“I am waiting to see him fall,” said Braun, who has lived in this settlement in the south of the territory for the past 11 years. “All our campaigns against the withdrawal have been crowned with success and have undermined this project.”

Thousands of settlers were expected to take party in demonstrations across Israel later on Thursday in opposition to the so-called disengagement, the latest in a series of protests that included the formation of a human chain stretching from Gaza to Jerusalem.

The settlers and their supporters have also been handing out T-shirts and bumper stickers, all emblazoned in the bright orange colour that has come to symbolise their campaign.

Hanna Picard, who lives in the nearby settlement of Shirat Hayam, on the southern tip of Gaza and overlooking the Mediterranean, has been spending many of her evenings over the past few months knocking on doors to rally support.

In March, Picard bumped into Sharon in the corridors of the Knesset, or Israeli Parliament, where she asked him: “Why do you, as the man who built the settlements, now want to destroy your own work?”

Sharon was long seen as the architect of the settlement programme, famously urging Israelis while in opposition five years ago to “seize the hills”.

“He tried to reassure me but I no longer have any confidence in him,” said Picard. “Sharon is behaving like a dictator and laughing in the face of public opinion.”

Despite the threat to its existence, building work is continuing unabated in Neve Dekalim and other settlements in the south that make up a larger bloc known as Gush Katif.

For mother-of-six Lea Idels, the prospect of being forced out of her home recalls painful memories of her evacuation from a settlement in the Sinai peninsula in 1982 built on land that was handed back to Egyptian control under a peace treaty.

“I know that the evacuation is a possibility but we have to explain that we are not only defending our homes but the future of the whole Jewish people,” said Idels, who has been a resident of Gush Katif for the past decade.

All the cars parked outside the local council offices are decked out with the orange flags and bumper stickers calling for support for the settlers.

However, Shaul Yitzhaki, a local farmer, said their fate is ultimately in the hands of God.

“He is going to save us, but even so we must do everything that we can.”—Sapa-AFP

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