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For decades, they have remained defiant and determined in the face of demonization by Europe, Washington, and the Arab world, as well as their own countrymen and women on the left.

They have faced with steadfast courage three years of daily, even hourly Palestinians attacks employing suicide bombs, mortars, Qassam rockets, anti-tank missiles, assault rifles and grenades.

Now, however, settlers have begun to speak publicly of the danger that may threaten the settlement movement more than any other:

Moving out.

The Yesha Council of Settlements mounted a major media offensive against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week, after Yesha officials said the prime minister's director-general had sounded them out on a proposal involving voluntary evacuation and closure of seven settlements.

According to the proposal, as a part of the prime minister's unilateral disengagement and army re-deployment plan, the settlers would receive compensation and a bonus for their movement: the promise of legislation barring all further evacuations until the signing of a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.

But Yesha leaders were zealous in rejecting the proposal. They projected the same defiance they'd shown the world, but trained it now at former chief patron Sharon,inviting the Israeli media to a Tuesday news conference called specifically to expose and denounce the confidential offer.

Sharon, who keeps public replies to a minimum, soon appeared before news cameras to deny that any such offer had been tendered.

To be sure, Ariel Sharon has a way with settlements.

In 1977, as agriculture minister, it was Sharon's hand that drew the maps that would place more than 120 settlements in the West Bank and a score more in the Gaza Strip, his stamp that smoothed the permits, his budget that paid for a huge range of extra-agricultural projects such as rabbinical academies.

In 1981, as Defense Minister, Sharon maintained the momentum of the settlement enterprise, building roads to new suburban communities in the West Bank that offered cash-strapped young Israeli couples irresistable real estate deals on private homes with gardens, tile roofs, and payment terms that defied belief.

In the 1990s, as infrastructures minister and later foreign minister, it was Sharon who exhorted Israeli youths to occupy vacant hilltops before someone else - someone Palestinian - did so.

But times have changed, and Sharon with them. Declaring that matters look different from the prime minister's chair, he has advocated aloud what Labor predecessor Ehud Barak dared not even mention: unilateral removal of settlements.

To the chagrin of the Yesha Council, a separately-proposed Knesset bill would establish a fund to pay compensation to any settlers desiring to move out of their settlements.

More fuel for speculation has come from a government source's revelation that Sharon's disengagement plan provided for compensation for uprooted Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, based on the model used in the evacuation of Sinai settlements under the 1979 peace Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

The plan sets out three alternatives: moving the entire settlement elsewhere, moving to another settlement, or moving back inside the Green Line and receiving cash compensation and help in finding housing.

Perhaps most threatening to the settlement movement is the fact that polls have shown that as much as two-thirds of the Israeli public believes that the enclaves mentioned can and should be dismantled in the context of an overall peace plan.

The seven settlements in question are Netzarim, Kfar Darom, and Morag in the Gaza Strip, Kadim and Ganim near the West Bank city of Jenin, and Sa Nur and Homesh in the Nablus region.

Their removal would afford the Palestinians territorial continguity throughout the central Gaza Strip and from Nablus to Jenin.

Originally placed so as to block such a circumstance, and thus place obstacles in the path of an eventual Palestinian state, the settlements are so hard to defend that leftist wags have suggested that the best way to convince Israelis to dismantle them is to have masses serving there in reserve duty.

Some of the settlements require many more IDF soldiers to guard them, round the clock, year in and year out, than their own total populations.

Netzarim requires more than a battalion of IDF troops, support soldiers and armor to defend its less than a hundred resident families. Even with its large detachment, the settlement, set up intentionally as a partition between the mammoth Jabalya Palestinian refugee camp in the north and Bureij, Nusseirat and Muazi, three hotbed camps to the south, has proven a nightmare to protect.

Among the recent victims of violence within Netzarim were two women soldiers killed sleeping in their beds, and a third support soldiers killed near his barracks by a Palestinian gunman.

In Kfar Darom, another besieged and barricaded settler island farther to the south, a total of 15 IDF soldiers have been killed defending the settlement.

Losses among settlers have been severe too. Palestinian violence has claimed the lives of five settlers in Kfar Darom alone, a devastating toll in the small, intensely tight-knit community.

Moreover, the settlements in question have long been the step-children of the settlement movement. They draw the fire of the Israeli public, without drawing new residents to settle. They are, in short, settlements that settlers themselves don't really want.

The settlement enterprise in places like the Gaza Strip or in remote hilltops near Jenin and Nablus was never a success in numerical terms, even before the violence of the Palestinian uprising made the very act of leaving or visiting a settlement a matter of taking one's life into one's hands.

Despite a predominance of large families among the settlers population, the total number of Jews in Gaza is virtually unchanged from what it was 15 years ago.

In some settlements, the population trend is decidedly downhill.

In Kadim and Ganim, two once-tidy settler suburbs featuring breathtaking views on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Jenin, most of the residents have already packed up and left of their own accord.

Barely 30 families now remain in Ganim, and fewer in Kadim. The number in Sanur was nine families until recently, some of whom desribed themselves as transient residents.

Some settlers, hoping to make a new start in Israel proper, have now come up against the ideology of the Yesha Council, which, instead of concentrating on molding public opinion in favor of enshrining the larger, more established settlements as part of a future Israel, opposes evacuation of any settlement, even of outposts the government has declared illegal.

"No one here believes that this settlement has any future," Kadim resident David Monsenego said Wednesday. "We stopped believing long ago."

Sooner or later, Kadim will be dismantled as part of a peace process, he says. "This is clear to every one of us, because the situation on the ground does not allow for other options."

Oddly, it was one of the steps most hated by the Palestinians that may prove the death knell of Kadim and other remote settlements.

"The straw that broke the camel's back was that same separation fence that was built right in front of our eyes, and left us on the other side." In parallel, the IDF pulled out of a nearby military base that had served as a buffer between Kadim and Jenin, a terror hotbed. The troops redeployed along the fence.

Monsenego compared the step to Israel's hasty, haphazard withdrawal from its allies in southern Lebanon in 2000. "It's terrible to say, but for us it quite resembles what happened there. The army simply ran away and left the SLA [the Israel-backed South Lebanon Army militia] to fend for itself.

"We've been left as orphans, without knowing what tomorrow will bring."

The redeployment measure coincided with Sharon's public exposition of the disengagement plan, which would entail "moving" scattered settlements and redeploying the army.

In a region rich only in irony, it is perhaps unsurprising that more settlers might leave, were it not for Israel's grave economic plight.

"Before the present intifada we were 45 families in all. Many of them left because of the security situation, but some of them later returned because of the economic situation."

The returnees found it impossible to "support two houses," paying rent on one in Israel proper and still paying off the mortgage in the settlement home they'd left, he told Israel Radio. "They stay for lack of an alternative."

Other settlers have found it impossible to move to Israel because having invested all they had in their homes and businesses in the West Bank and Gaza, inexpensive as they were to buy or build, the houses now can find few buyers, and only at rock-bottom prices.

Shunning publicity, some settlers have quietly turned to politicians to ask for help in moving out. "I have had contact with many hundreds of citizens who live in the territory of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the Gaza Strip, who came there in search of quality of life, and have found their lives in danger," said Labor legislator Eitan Cabel.

Cabel emphasized that the government bore a responsibility to the settlers, having effectively sent them to their homes with promises of superior living conditions over the Green Line border "just five minutes from Kfar Sava."

Grave as Monsenego's complaints were, Cabel said, "Off the air, the residents' remarks are much, much more serious. People are living there with the sense of being in jail. They can't leave at night. No one comes to visit them, including their own close families."

In the past, the government, which includes the settler-dominated National Religious Party and National Union, showed no enthusiasm for compensation plans.

Cabel, citing field studies he and aides had conducted, said that "Perhaps the government, led by the settlers, is concerned because they know that that if a compensation fund were established, the exodus from settlements would be enormous."

"That is why the Yesha Council is standing up on its hind legs to fight this, because they know that the moment that the the opportunity is granted, to leave the settlements in a respectable manner, people will leave in a gallop."