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An Israeli flag flies from the roof of one of the houses at the extreme end of the Rafah Yam settlement in the Gaza Strip. Its owners undoubtedly wanted to flaunt Israel's sovereignty in this remote area, which lies between the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. However, the piece of blue-and-white cloth has long since been torn by the wind and sullied by the elements, and the flag has become a reflection of its environment: The whole settlement is in a state of neglect, its streets strewn with refuse. The residents' explanation for this sorry sight is that no one has the energy to maintain the grounds and the houses. Some of them say unabashedly that they would like to leave but don't have the wherewithal. The homes in a new residential neighborhood are empty and no one wants to buy them - nor the homes of the settlers.

Families came to Rafah Yam from Israel in the 1980s and 1990s with the professed aim of improving their quality of life. It is a secular settlement whose inhabitants sought to realize their dream of a home with a garden rather than the dream of a Greater Israel. Their dream has not been fulfilled: There is no longer any quality of life here, and worse, their private dream has become the collective nightmare. The possibility that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will reconquer and reoccupy the Gaza Strip to protect the handful of settlers in the area has become more concrete of late. Over the past few days, bulldozers have been demolishing houses and tearing up fields on a large scale, to "expose" the area and thus prepare it for a possible Israeli invasion.

Israel is investing prodigious sums of money and endangering the lives of many soldiers to protect a few settlers in the Gaza Strip, not a small number of whom would like to leave anyway. Surely, if more Israelis saw with their own eyes the breathtaking scope of the wrong and the folly being perpetrated here, they would be less indifferent to the fact that some 6,500 settlers are imposing pointless killing and destruction on Israel and the Palestinians.

Getting to Rafah Yam involves traveling about 25 kilometers through the Gaza Strip along a road that is open to Jews only and is fortified beyond any other road in the territories: Barbed wire fences, concrete walls, earth ramparts, dozens of tanks, a special bridge, hundreds of soldiers, watchtowers, checkpoints and fortifications greet the settler on his or her way home. Occasionally the traveler sees signs commemorating those who have been killed here. Of course, no one mentions the Palestinians who have been killed. In any event, Palestinians are rarely seen. A stranger would think he was in a full-fledged Israeli area and not the enclave of a negligible minority living among a million Palestinians. The only local residents allowed on this road are farmers from the Muassi region, who have special permits; all the others are not even allowed to approach their own seashore, because of the presence of the settlements.

The residents of Rafah Yam can't see the suffering their presence is causing their neighbors. The subject probably isn't even of any interest to them. People with a more developed sense of morality would surely be unwilling to accept the situation, or to accept the fact that soldiers are called on to risk their lives so that they can live here (one reservist has been killed and five have been wounded here).

The neighboring city, visible beyond the barbed wire fences and the golden sands, is one of the most battered places in the territories. According to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Israel has demolished no fewer than 265 homes in Rafah in the course of the present intifada, and 2,185 people have been made homeless. The UNRWA director in the region, Lionel Brisson, says these numbers do not include the dozens of houses that have been leveled along the front line, which no one is able to get to, or the hundreds of houses that have been partially damaged. Nor does the view from the balconies of Rafah Yam include the children in Rafah, suffering from malnutrition, nor the unemployment - which stands at 80 percent of the workforce.

In contrast, the children of Rafah Yam make the daily trip to their schools in the Negev in armored buses, each of which costs about a million shekels, escorted by IDF jeeps. It is difficult to understand how parents are ready to raise their children in conditions like this: prisoners in their homes after school; cut off from the majority of their friends, who don't live in the settlements; growing up in the shadow of unrelenting fear.

It is time to put an end to this absurdity, beginning with government aid for those who want to leave. In the end, that option will be a lot cheaper than any other. The next step is to stop protecting these settlers. Almost everyone in Israel knows full well that this outrageous settlement enterprise is doomed, but almost everyone continues to support the project passively, by serving in the reserves, by not refusing and not protesting. It's hard to understand why.