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Move communities, settlers ask

Urge unity after '05 Gaza pullout

JERUSALEM -- Residents of some Jewish settlements in the northern Gaza Strip have proposed that their entire communities be moved to locations inside Israel under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza next year, a lawmaker said yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military handed over the bodies of three Palestinians killed earlier yesterday near the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said soldiers opened fire on suspicious figures moving in a forbidden area.

A resident said the settlers want to remain together outside Gaza, a sign that a significant number of the 8,200 settlers slated for evacuation next year are resigned to leaving Gaza, despite vocal opposition by settler leaders. Some have quietly formed committees to negotiate their exit.

Nissan Slomianski, a lawmaker with the prosettlement National Religious Party, who met with settler representatives Tuesday, said they remained opposed to Sharon's withdrawal plan, but want to remain together if they are forced to leave.

"I don't want to give the impression that they are ready to leave," he said. "However, if there is a situation where they are taken out by force, then they want to move as an entire community."

Israeli media identified the communities as Nissanit, Elei Sinai, and Dugit. The three settlements are in northern Gaza along the dividing line with Israel, and their residents are generally considered the most likely to leave without much resistance. Unlike their ideologically driven counterparts deeper inside Gaza, the 1,400 people in these communities were attracted primarily by the bucolic quality of life along the Mediterranean shore.

Shosh Schatz, a resident of Elei Sinai, said several dozen families had raised the idea of being transplanted together to a spot inside Israel during a meeting last month with the governmental authority overseeing the withdrawal. "We want to stay as a community together," she said.

An official in the government's Disengagement Administration said there is no formal proposal to move the settlements together, but that the government is considering the idea. "This is one of the best ways to make the disengagement," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The government is considering building three new communities inside Israel for settlers, he said.

Sharon announced plans to pull out of Gaza and four small settlements in the northern West Bank next summer. With Mideast peace efforts stalled, Sharon said the moves were needed to boost Israel's security and head off international pressure on Israel.

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Also yesterday, Israeli and Palestinian officials said the two sides have agreed on logistics for the Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat, who died last month.

Saeb Erekat, a minister in the Palestinian Cabinet, said the agreement with Israel would be based on the same procedures that were in place for the last Palestinian elections, in 1996. That would include allowing residents of disputed east Jerusalem to vote.

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