The Jew who would be Palestinian
Leave Gaza? Avi Farhan would rather live as a member of a minority among the Muslims he has known for decades.

Avi Farhan may soon become Israel's most uprooted man. Twice now, he has dwelt in the wrong house in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 1982, the former Israeli army commander was one of the last people pulled from Yamit, the fledgling Jewish settlement emptied when Israel returned the Sinai peninsula as the price for peace with Egypt.

Today, Farhan is staring at the double jeopardy of yet another pullout. This time, the target town is Elei Sinai, the seaside settlement he helped found with a group of fellow Yamitniks on the northernmost corner of the Gaza Strip.

Bad déjà voodoo, you might say. But unlike the vast majority of the estimated 8,000 Israeli settlers facing withdrawal in July, Farhan says he is ready go all the way in his campaign to stay put.

He is ready to become a Palestinian.

Farhan, 58, is not talking religious conversion; he intends to remain a Jew. But faced with starting his life over a third time, he would much prefer to live as a member of a minority among the Palestinian Muslims he has befriended for decades.

The Libyan-born émigré floated the idea to the Star while gazing out over a Mediterranean paradise that has been his backyard for 23 years.

He ran a thriving restaurant on this beach ? a co-operative venture featuring the fresh catch of his Palestinian fishermen friends ? until five years ago, when the bombs began exploding and Israelis stopped coming.

Now, Farhan has begun rebuilding the rusted and derelict eatery, hoping against hope he still has time to catch the attention of George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair or anyone else who might listen.

"If we stay, we in this settlement can be a bridge to real peace. Not just a piece of paper, but real peace," he says, waving expansively toward the sea.

"Everything is possible; all we need is the will. We have all the conditions ? the beach, the sun, a clean sea ? to create an empire to rival the Riviera.

"Give me the option to become a Palestinian citizen, and we can build it together."

Farhan's reasoning is perfectly logical: just a few hundred metres to his north stands Israel proper, home not only to more than 5 million Jews but also to an estimated 1.2 million Israeli Arabs ? Palestinians, essentially ? who managed to resist displacement in the wars triggered by Israel's birth.

Since the Israeli state gives citizenship to Palestinians inside its borders, Farhan argues, why should a future Palestinian state not extend the same courtesy to Jewish settlers such as himself, who are keen to coexist happily with their Arab neighbours if given the chance?

Yet even if the Palestinians of Gaza, where the rejectionist ideology of the Islamic movement Hamas holds sway, could accept such logic, it is doubtful more than a handful of settlers would be interested.

Here in the settlements of northern Gaza, a secular breed of Israelis has already begun making plans to move. Even in Farhan's own Elei Sinai enclave, a dozen of its 90 families last month signed an agreement with the Israeli government to accept compensation and move en masse to nearby Bat Hadar, in Israel proper.

In the settlements further south, including the 10 towns and villages comprising the Gush Katif bloc and the staunchly ideological Netzarim, a substantially more religious settlers' group that views the Jewish presence in Gaza as all-or-nothing. Preferably all. By divine right.

At Netzarim settlement, Shlomit Vit, a mother of eight, stared blankly when asked whether she could envision keeping her house in Gaza under Palestinian rule. Inconceivable, she said.

"A belief doesn't change; faith is unshakable. Our commitment is to hold this place in Jewish hands."

Farhan came to Elei Sinai with three daughters and one toddler son. Now, two of those daughters are his neighbours in the settlement, with children of their own.

And the son, Ofer, now 25, is a sad but still smiling sun-browned bachelor who has come to view the conflict as a colossal failure of religion, Judaism and Islam alike.

"I'm an atheist. Most of my Palestinian friends are atheists. But I can't even see them now. I can only talk to them on the phone," says Ofer as he helps his father clear debris from the dormant seaside restaurant.

"The Bible says all of the world is for everybody. I'm not a fanatic. I'm a person because I'm a person. Like everybody."

Inside the family's nearby home, Avi's wife, 58-year-old Lora Farhan, sits with a group of three Elei Sinai schoolboys leafing through a fading photo album of Yamit, the home she had to leave long before they were born.

"This was where we lived. And after we left, there was peace with Egypt," she tells the boys. "That's the difference today. We are being told to leave, but there is no peace with the Palestinians."

Avi Farhan's mobile phone rings. It is a call from the village synagogue, announcing a 10th man is needed to make minion, or quorum, so evening prayers can begin.

Ofer bursts out laughing.

"Don't look at me."

But Avi still has his faith, perhaps now more than ever, and takes up the call to prayer.

At the synagogue, there is a group of young men, newcomers to Elei Sinai, bobbing in prayer with an intensity not generally known to this settlement. Opponents of the Israeli disengagement plan here to block it with their bodies? One can only speculate, since they decline to be interviewed.

Farhan tries again with a final plea: "Let me have the option of becoming a Palestinian citizen. Let me vote. Let me run for office, even. Maybe I would win. I have more Palestinian friends than some of the Palestinians."

But having lived through withdrawal once before, he lets his guard down to hint that even he sees a losing battle in the making. He acknowledges a weakness among the settler leadership, a willingness to be "seduced by the expulsion order."

He speaks in disgust: "The leaders of some of our communities sat down and started negotiating on what these houses are worth.

"We should be willing to communicate: `We are here in the homes that we built, among the trees that we planted. It has no price.' If most people in the movement spoke this way, it would be morally impossible to take us out."

"Let me have the option of becoming a Palestinian citizen. Let me vote. Let me run for office, even."

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