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Embattled jewish gaza settlers pray for miracles { January 15 2004 }

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January 15, 2004
Embattled Jewish Settlers in Gaza Pray for Miracles

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip The marvel of Asher Mivtzari's kitchen is not that it's new but that his family is around to enjoy it. A Palestinian mortar shell fell through the roof and exploded in the room one morning a year ago just a half-hour before his wife and seven children would have been eating breakfast.

"It was a big miracle," said Mr. Mivtzari, a bookish man in red-framed glasses and a long, graying beard.

But Mr. Mivtzari and his family may need a bigger miracle to keep their home in Kfar Darom, one of the most isolated of Israel's nearly 150 Jewish settlements on territory the country seized from neighboring Arab states during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Political support for remote settlements, where fighting is frequent, has begun to erode as Israel searches for a way out of three years of violence. Flagships of extreme Zionism that often attract hard-line ideologues, they provoke Palestinian fury and are difficult for the army to defend. In short, they have become a thorn in the government's side.

Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a chief proponent of the settler movement, has said that some remote settlements must go. If they do, many people predict that Kfar Darom, strategically insignificant and costly to defend, will be one.

In the last 10 years, 15 Israeli soldiers have died protecting the community, which straddles what was once the Gaza Strip's main north-south highway. The settlement now blocks the road. Five settlers have lost their lives, and several others have been maimed. Attacks are so regular that even toddlers here know the difference between the thud of exploding mortar rounds and the sharper boom of tank fire.

Of the nearly 3,800 mortar shells that have landed in the Gaza settlements in the last three years, about 500 were aimed here.

Besides the one that hit his kitchen, four other shells fell around Mr. Mivtzari's house before an army patrol finally found the steel launching tube, cemented into place and attached to a timer, less than a mile from the settlement wall.

When Palestinian fighters score a hit with their wildly inaccurate homemade shells, they often fix the launcher in place so they can strike the same spot again and again. Some houses have been hit repeatedly, but the settlers rarely move. Instead, they replace their tile roofs with reinforced concrete and pray.

Faith in their divine right, if not duty, to inhabit the land has kept the settlers in place.

Mr. Mivtzari paused while putting out plates of cake for the 40 guests arriving to celebrate his 12-year-old daughter's bat mitzvah. He said Jews were living here 2,000 years ago, sending one of his children to fetch a book of the Talmud so that he could point out a reference to Kfar Darom. The name means "village of the south."

Others argue that giving up Kfar Darom or any of the other isolated settlements will mean the start of a gradual retreat that could eventually threaten Israel's existence.

"If we give in to the Arabs they'll take more and more, and we'll all end up in Tel Aviv and then they'll take that," said Noga Cohen, feeding the youngest of her eight children a few doors down from Mr. Mivtzari.

To help hold the line, Ms. Cohen and her family recently returned to Kfar Darom. They left two years ago, after an attack on a school bus left three of the children maimed. One daughter lost both legs. Another lost a foot; a son lost a leg. All are undergoing psychological and physical therapy.

"Everybody's scared here," Ms. Cohen said, but the children "know they have to overcome it."

Kfar Darom resembles an unfinished suburban Florida neighborhood, with single-story white stucco houses roofed in red tile. Fifty-seven families, about 400 people, live here. Doors are rarely locked, and children run about.

But concrete barriers shield many houses, and a high electronic fence alerts army sentries to intruders. Every morning about 30 young men who study at the settlement's yeshiva arrive in a heavily armored vehicle called a safari truck. Twisted reinforcing bars and broken concrete on a bus shelter attest to the damage a mortar can do.

The settlement is built on land bought by a Jewish businessman in 1932 and sold to the Jewish National Fund 20 years later. An attempt to settle the site was abandoned after the Egyptian Army attacked it in 1948 while seizing the Gaza Strip. But after Israel captured the strip in the 1967 war, its soldiers returned to set up an agricultural outpost.

Families began settling here and elsewhere in Gaza a decade later. Today there are some 8,000 settlers in Gaza, most living in communities that form a contiguous bloc fenced off by the military. But Kfar Darom and Netzarim, to the north, are surrounded by Palestinian land.

The settlements supply Israel and the kosher world beyond with bug-free leafy vegetables from hothouses covered in plastic sheeting. But many of Kfar Darom's adults commute to jobs in Israel, just a few miles away.

Tensions were not always so high. Yair Amitai, 15, recalled as a child trading chocolate for dates with young Arab boys who climbed the palm trees outside the settlement gate. But in 1996, after Palestinian riots in Jerusalem, the Arab boys from a neighboring school began throwing stones over the wall.

After the stones came bullets and then mortar shells, followed by the occasional antitank missile and now even rockets. On the day Yair spoke, 14 shells were fired at the nearby settlement of Neve Dekalim. Nine struck it; no one was hurt.

Three years ago Yair's mother was killed in the school bus attack that injured the Cohen children. But even that is remembered through the prism of deep belief.

"You have to understand the size of the miracle," he said, explaining that another bus packed with children usually left the settlement first, but that his mother's bus had taken the lead that morning.

Yair was interrupted by a concussive thump, and a moment later the phone rang: the army post was calling to tell residents it was outgoing observation flares.

The army has closed the Palestinian school overlooking Kfar Darom and destroyed all nearby houses that the settlers say were the source of attacks. Kfar Darom is now surrounded by a sort of no man's land.

Outside, a tank started up with a cloud of black diesel exhaust and churned away on patrol along the inside of the settlement fence. Spotlights swept the land beyond. Within a few hours, guns began barking.

Parents here say children have adapted to the fighting, though there was some bed-wetting when the violence began. Many have nightmares of Palestinian intruders. But counselors from outside the settlement have helped, the parents said.

The children know to run to the nearest house when shelling starts. Every house has a reinforced concrete shelter, though the settlers say they are rarely used.

Meanwhile, new settlers continue to arrive. Meyer and Adi Dana-Picard were only in Kfar Darom a few weeks when an antitank missile exploded near them. Both escaped with minor injuries. But Ms. Dana-Picard, who is pregnant with the couple's second child, argued that in many ways the settlement was a healthy environment for children.

"In Jerusalem, when you see an Arab you don't know whether he's with you or against you," she said, but here if you see an Arab you know he's dangerous and you shoot him."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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