Settlers Prepare to Give Beach Back to Palestine

GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip -- With baggy shorts, a deep tan and a gleaming white surfboard, Lior Barda looks like any surfer dude as he scans the Mediterranean for the perfect wave.

But the 21-year-old Israeli is no ordinary beach bum. He is part of a subculture of surfing settlers watching the sun setting on their idyllic lifestyle in the occupied Gaza Strip.

The Israeli government intends to evict Barda and his surfer friends when it removes all 8,500 Jewish settlers from the coastal territory starting in August under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to "disengage" from conflict with Palestinians.

"We're losing the best waves on this entire coastline," Barda lamented as he sat strumming his guitar atop a lifeguard tower at the main beach at Gush Katif, Gaza's largest settlement bloc, where he works part-time.

Gazing out at the sparkling sea and pristine sands, it seems like a beach lover's paradise. Youths stroll past with wave boards under their arms. A teenaged couple roars by on a beach buggy. A sport fisherman stands thigh-deep in the shallows.

But just beyond the rolling dunes lies an army encampment ringed by razor-wire fencing and bristling with aerials ---stark reminders of 4 1/2 years of violence marked by Palestinian militant attacks and Israeli military raids in the strip.

If protests against the pullout turn violent, Barda and his fellow surfers, mostly secular Jews, won't join in. They oppose Sharon's "disengagement plan" but are resigned to leaving.

Barda has lived most of his life in nearby Pe'at Sadeh, where most of the 20 settler families have decided to relocate to a new community inside Israel just north of Gaza. And the settlers' loss will be the Palestinians' gain.

Settlers account for less than one percent of the population of the Gaza Strip, densely populated and home to 1.3 million Palestinians, but they control at least 15 percent of the land, much of it seafront property.

Once the settlers are gone, Palestinians in the nearby town of Khan Younis, whose path to the beach has been blocked by the army since the start of the uprising, will again have an escape from the summer heat of their crowded breezeblock slums.

Barda does not begrudge ordinary Palestinians the chance to enjoy Gush Katif's scenic beaches, complete with showers and sun shades, where he first surfed at the age of 9.

Unlike hard-line settlers, his family moved to Gaza not for religion or ideology but because of incentives offered by the government -- tax breaks, loans and a better quality of life.

But Barda now worries that if Israel leaves the settlers' suburban style houses intact in Gaza's 21 enclaves, his home will fall into the hands of militants "with blood on their hands."

While serving in the army in 2003, Barda was shot in the leg when a gunman attacked his post at a West Bank settlement. Two comrades were killed, and he spent five months in the hospital.

Even now, when he paddles out on his Star of David-adorned surfboard, his prize from a surfing championship, he sometimes feels pain.

"I have no desire for revenge," he said. "I just hope what Sharon is doing brings peace, not more terror."