Interview: Israeli settler Avi Farhan

The illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have been one of the most dangerous and explosive aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

    Avi Farhan says he will become a Palestinian citizen to stay in Gaza

    This August, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will begin to evacuate all 21 of the Gaza settlements he helped establish as part of his strategic "disengagement plan". 

    Many settlers, like 59-year-old restaurateur Avi Farhan, have vowed to resist the withdrawal.

    Farhan, a former Israeli army commander whose family immigrated to Israel from Libya when he was three, will become a two-time evacuee.

    Farhan was the first Israeli to move to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula after it was captured in the 1967 war and the last to leave after the settlement was evacuated in line with the Camp David Peace Accords. He staged a five-day protest march back to Jerusalem. Later, Farhan moved to northern Gaza upon encouragement from Sharon, where he founded the settlement of Eli Sinai - literally Towards Sinai. 

    His settlement is slated for evacuation in 45 days, but Farhan insists that, this time, he will not leave, even if this means becoming a Palestinian citizen and living without Israeli military protection. spoke with Farhan from his beachside home in the occupied northern Gaza Strip. Why would you want to stay in Gaza and become a Palestinian citizen, given the tremendous opposition to your presence?

    Avi Farhan: I, along with my friends and neighbours, want to stay in Gaza, just as Palestinians from Haifa and Tabaria can live in Israel. The world has progressed; we are in 2005 now. The Arabs have to change the diskette, to reprogram their computer.

    Just as [Palestinian] MP Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara can live in Israel as citizens, why can't I stay in my house in Eli Sinai and have a Palestinian ID card and even become a representative in the Palestinian Legislative Council?

    Many people reject your presence here and consider it illegal by standards of international law.

    Extremist [Palestinians] say: "We want to return to Haifa and Yafa." They don't want Avi to stay here. They want Avi to go into the sea.

    Israel plans to withdraw from all
    21 settlements in the Gaza Strip

    Me and another 1 million Jews used to live in Libya. I came here when I was three years old. We were expelled. Some others were expelled from Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and all over. We left money, land and a house on the beach in Tripoli. I don't want my money and my dad's house, I just want to stay here.

    I say if a new Palestinian state has educated people and it is democratic, it needs to change. I met [Mohammad] Dahlan four to five years ago in Eli Sinai in my fish restaurant.

    I told him if you could give me assurances of peace, we could make something great from Ashkelon to the al-Arish, and it could be better than the French Riviera, but you have to make peace from the heart, not political peace.

    He said: "You can stay here if you become a Palestinian settler." I told him, "You don't scare me with this talk. If you agree to this, I will get elected in the Legislative Council before you do - I have more friends than you in Gaza."

    All I want to do is remain, as a Jewish settler, in Eli Sinai in Gaza, just like Palestinians who live in the Um al-Fahem in Israel.

    Um al-Fahem is a Palestinian village. Eli Sinai is an illegal colony built on occupied land.

    We are a village, too. The word "settlement" is merely a lexicon - just a figure of speech. It just means settling down in one place. It's not the way the world is saying - that we conquered the territory. They made it into a negative word. Um al-Fahem is a settlement just like Eli Sinai.

    But Israeli settlements are racist by their very nature - only Israeli Jews can live there. Palestinians from Gaza cannot live there.  On the other hand, you can live in Um al-Fahem.

    I can't even walk by Um al-Fahem - I'll get shot.

    Theoretically speaking…

    A few hundred metres away from me there are Arabs living here. But there still isn't enough goodwill for them to live inside the settlement. I'm sorry to see things this way, but it's not a one-sided problem.

    You were the last to leave the settlement of Yamit when it was evacuated from Sinai, and you staged an infamous standoff. Will you stage a similar protest when Israel evacuates Gaza in August?

    I don't want the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) to destroy houses. I think this is wrong. This is not peace, nor will it bring peace. As I said, I am a refugee from Tarablus, Libya, and came to Tel Aviv, then moved to Yamit, then became a refugee in Eli Sinai. No money can compensate for my land.

    Palestinian minister Mohammed
    Dahlan is supervising the pullout

    I came to Israel because I am Jewish. We were here 2000 years ago. I don't want to leave again. If on August 15 Sharon comes to me, I will refuse to leave. But this will not happen. I see that Israeli society will refuse Sharon's plan. This path of Sharon's is wrong. There are other options. Israel can rent the land from the Palestinians. They can trade other land for this land.

    It's not my ideal wish to be under a Palestinian government, but in this case, I won't go where Sharon wants me to.

    Didn't you ever think that this land belongs to people, that the same thing that happened in Sinai was likely to happen again here in Gaza?

    I didn't think to come to the Gaza Strip - it was Sharon's idea. He was then defence minister. He kicked us out of Yamit, out of my home in 1982. When I was kicked out of there, I went to Jerusalem. I thought about establishing a tent like a refugee near Erez on the border with Gaza until I return to my home in Sinai. Sharon suggested I build a new house in Eli Sinai instead.

    Before 1967, this area in northern Gaza was a no-man's land demarcated by the UN. I didn't think it would be a problem - why would Sharon have brought me to a place that I would be kicked out of again?

    Palestinian officials have said that settlers who want to stay in Gaza would have to live under Palestinian jurisdiction and abide by Palestinian laws. Is this something you are willing to accept?

    Of course, if it will be democratic.

    You won't have state protection any longer, though. Aren't you scared?

    I am only scared of God.

    Palestinian officials also say any Israeli settlers staying in the Palestinian state cannot expect to keep the land they are living on now.

    I have documents that this land was not Arab land. It was never Arab, not before, or after. Dugit, Eli Sinai and Nisanit belonged to the UN. 

    Did you purchase the land?

    No, it was neither ours nor the Palestinians'.

    Why did you go to Sinai to start with? Why not Tel Aviv? 

    Because it is Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). It's in the Torah. This land is ours from the Euphrates to the Nile, or as some people interpret it, to Wadi al-Arish. It's not me saying this - it's God. This is our land. Why didn't I go to Uganda, you might ask? Because 2000 years ago we were here. We kept praying "next year in Jerusalem", until we finally returned to Jerusalem. You have Makka and Medina.

    Some Arabs might be threatened by that talk, just as you are threatened by Palestinian claims to Haifa and Yafa.

    Now we have to talk about goodwill. We live in 2005. The world has changed. 

    Palestinians make a similar claim - that they were here 60 years ago, just as you were 2000 years ago, and that they want to return to their homes.

    I tell them, listen, show me you have good intentions and come live with me in Tel Aviv. A Palestinian goes to Tel Aviv and he isn't scared he'll get shot. I can't even think about venturing out into Gaza City.

    In an article he wrote on the subject last year, former Palestinian cabinet minister Hasan Asfour said: "My objection is not to individuals or a people; we would not reject any Jew who rejects Israel's aggressive nature and becomes a Palestinian citizen. The objection is to consolidating facts that were established by force and aggression. Accepting any settler to stay in his present abode would be tantamount to a whitewash of this immoral and shameful enterprise."

    He is wrong. If this is so, if Israel thinks this way, then the Arabs of Um al-Fahem, and Tira, and Tayba wouldn't be there. We have to live together.

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vows
    the pullout will be on time

    Until Oslo, we worked together as partners. Oslo only brought political peace, verbal peace - "salaam kalaam", not "salaam shaab", or a people's peace. Gaza was overrun by those who prefer fancy hotels and cabarets than to take care of their people.

    But what about your presence in Gaza on other people's homes, in Netzarim and Neve Dekalim and other illegal settlements?

    Two thousand years ago, the Jews were here. Iranians and Romans kicked us out, all over the place. Then 120 years ago, the Jews began returning to their original home. There were no Arabs. They came from Turkey and here and there.

    What about the Palestinians who lived here?

    They only came in the last 200 years.

    What I'm saying is that if we want real peace, all the Arab states have to participate alongside Europe, the US and Israel. The Arab states have to come to terms with what happened to the million Jews that once lived there. I suggest that each country in the Arab land absorb the Palestinians that live there, like in Ein Hilwah camp in Lebanon, for example, and have them live in the lands that we owned there. If they want to come back to Yaffa and Lydd and Ramla, then they want to kick the Jews out.

    Many refugees say they are willing to live in an Israeli state if this means they can return home, just like you are willing to live under a Palestinian one.

    Israel cannot absorb all the refugees. If there is real peace, I can discuss this matter, and we'll find a way. If there is goodwill on both sides, then anything can happen. But I don't see goodwill. I don't trust the Egyptians, for example. I think peace with Syria is warmer than that with Egypt.

    Do you think other settlers should follow your lead or is it too dangerous given the extreme ideological and hostile tendencies of the settlers towards Palestinians and friction between both sides?

    Yes, I do, if there is goodwill. I spoke with local Gaza settlement leaders about my proposal and told them if you want to stay, they should simply not move from their houses. Besides, if we stay in Gaza, the Palestinians will benefit. It will be good for them because the world can know that the Palestinians have become democratic and accept Jews to live amongst them.

    Have you discussed your proposal with senior Israeli officials?

    Yes, with Israeli MPs Michael Eitan and Avraham Ravi. They agreed to help me and have written out a proposal to this end.

    And Ariel Sharon? What does he have to say?

    I met Sharon two months ago in the corridors of the Knesset building in Jerusalem. I told him about my plan. He laughed and said: "Avi, I am worried that next you will want to become an MP in the Palestinian parliament."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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