NETZARIM, Gaza Strip, Aug 5 (Reuters) - After years of ferrying passengers in a bullet-proof bus to the most isolated Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, Yitzhak Levy will soon be out of a job.
The pistol-packing driver, survivor of repeated Palestinian attacks on the road from Netzarim to Israel's border, will have to abandon his regular, 10-minute route because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout plan leaves him no other choice.
With 12 days to go before the start of Sharon's planned evacuation of all settlements in occupied Gaza, Levy and his fellow Netzarim settlers are increasingly resigned to it, even as they try to keep up the appearance of life as usual.
Sharon's cabinet will deliver another dose of reality on Sunday when it grants final approval for evacuation of Gaza's three most vulnerable settlements, including Netzarim, in the first of a series of votes to be held by mid-August.
Unlike the mostly secular settlements of northern Gaza, no one is budging yet from Netzarim, an ideologically hardline community of red-roofed homes and tidy gardens that sits between densely populated Gaza City and the Nusseirat refugee camp.
But cracks have formed in the settlers' wall of defiance, easing, but not erasing altogether, fears that Netzarim could become a centre of violent resistance to the pullout.
"Maybe it will take a miracle for us to stay here now," . Dina Abramson, 23, said as she waited for Levy's armoured bus to take her into Israel to attend university classes. "It's sad ... This place is a kind of paradise."
Behind her lay Netzarim's razor-wire perimeter fence lined with watchtowers, and beyond that, a bulldozed wasteland off-limits to Palestinians. The army says such measures thwart attacks. Palestinians call it collective punishment.
Pullout preparations moved ahead against a backdrop of rising tension after a soldier from a West Bank settlement killed four Israeli Arabs on a bus on Thursday. Netzarim settlers said it was inconceivable that even the most radical of their brethren would resort to attacks on Palestinians.
More so than most Gaza settlements, Netzarim, founded in 1972, is dominated by ultra-religious Jews who stake a biblical claim to Gaza and the West Bank, territories the Palestinians want for a state. The settlers also say ceding occupied land would reward a nearly five-year-old Palestinian uprising.
But polls show most Israelis believe Netzarim and other Gaza settlements slated for evacuation are not worth the price. With 400 settlers, Netzarim ties down a battalion of equal numbers.
Since 2001, Palestinian attackers have killed more than a dozen soldiers and several settlers in and around Netzarim. Israeli forces have shot dead dozens of Palestinians in the area, including gunmen and civilians.
Some soldiers insist they should not have to risk their lives to protect settlers who choose to live in harm's way.
To Palestinians in Gaza, Netzarim is one of the most hated symbols of occupation. The World Court says all of Israel's settlements, where 250,000 Jews live cloistered from 3.8 million Palestinians, are illegal. Israel disputes this.
The Palestinian Authority is said to be considering using Netzarim, which will be demolished like other Gaza settlements, as a service area for new Gaza port now in the planning stages.
In mid-2002, Sharon proclaimed that Netzarim was as important to Israel's security as Tel Aviv.
But a year and a half later, the man who had once championed the settlement movement announced his plan to uproot some 9,000 settlers to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians.
Settlers reacted at first with disbelief, then with anger.
In Netzarim, sprinklers spin on manicured lawns, farmers tend to their mango groves and seminary students chant prayers.
But the calm is strained. Many people are vowing to stay until the bitter end. Some may even have to be dragged out. Settlers insist, however, that any resistance will be peaceful.
When they go, there will be only one way out, the sole access road now used by armoured convoys. It is a route often plagued by Palestinian gunfire, bombs and anti-tank rockets.
Steering his lumbering green bus along a rutted course, Levy, 45, insisted he could cope with any kind of attack but was more wary of what Sharon had in mind for Gaza settlers.
"This is the Land of Israel. Jews should not be forced out," he said with conviction. But he later betrayed a flicker of doubt when asked what he would be doing a year from now. "I'm not sure," he said. "A good driver can always find work."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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