The Jewish Agency is likely to respond positively to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's request that it help resettle the 8,000 Israeli residents of the Gaza Strip in the western Negev, said Paula Edelstein, who co-chairs the agency's Negev-Galilee Task Force. Upset by the request, the Women in Green organization plans to demonstrate outside the agency's Board of Governors meeting Wednesday morning, as board members debate the matter.
"No final decision has been made about whether we will do this, but initial discussions have been held," Edelstein said.
But she added that, given the agency's role as the country's primary institution that develops settlements in the Negev and within the pre-June 1967 borders, it is a hard request to refuse.
It is unclear whether the board will decide this week or delay a decision until its next meeting in the fall.
Michael Matar, the administrator of Women in Green, charged that it is illegal for Sharon to turn to the Jewish Agency and said the agency should refuse on the grounds it is an anti-Zionistic request.
"It is unlawful for Sharon to ask the agency to prepare such a plan without approval from the Knesset, particularly if he plans to hand them governmental funds to do so," Matar said.
He added that, as an organization which raises funds to support Zionism, it is contrary to the very principles of the Jewish Agency to work to uproot Jews from the Land of Israel.
Disengagement has been on the agency's agenda this week, as it held its annual assembly at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, with speeches in support of the move by Immigration Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni (Likud), Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres, and MK Haim Ramon (Labor).
On Wednesday, Avishai Braverman, the president of Ben-Gurion University, will address the board on the Negev and the Galilee.
In a speech to the agency on Monday, Peres said he felt the Gaza settlers should be moved to the Negev and Galilee.
It is a step that Sharon also mentioned when he addressed a gala celebration highlighting 75 years of Jewish Agency achievement on Sunday night.
"Instead of fighting the Palestinians in the West Bank," Peres said, "[settlers should] fight the desert in the Negev. I would prefer that we direct our investments to the Negev and Galilee.
"The Negev is more than half of the [area of the] country. It could become a flourishing piece of land, it could become a center of hi-tech and research and development. Take the money that goes to Gaza and spend it in the Negev. Why give priority to a need that is recognized as unneeded?"
Sharon has asked the agency to take on the task of setting up new settlements in the Negev and expanding existing ones to accommodate the Gaza settlers, said agency treasurer Shai Hermesh. Sharon was not asking for money in turning to the agency, even though it is the recipient of donations from Jews around the world to be used for immigration, education, and social welfare programs, he said.
He said the government would pay for the move, and the agency would use its development offices to execute it. But, he added, it is a challenging request because the timetable – 18 months – is very tight. Final approval for the move would be given only nine months into the process, he added.
Hermesh, Edelstein, and others in the agency see Sharon's request as a natural recognition of its role in building the country.
"The Jewish Agency established all the settlements in Israel and has expertise in establishing new settlements or enlarging existing settlements," Edelstein said.
Not everyone in the agency favors heeding Sharon's request. "We are not responsible for persuading people to leave wherever they live to go to the Galilee and Negev," former board of governors chairman Mendel Kaplan told Channel 2. "We are responsible for taking Jews who made the decision to live in the Galilee and Negev and to help them live there."
Edelstein said it is no secret that there are those within the agency who do not want to move the settlers. But should the agency agree to Sharon's request, she said, it would not be making a political statement.
"As the national institution that has been charged with dealing with settlements, the Jewish Agency will probably answer the call, without putting any political judgment [on it]. We have a responsibility to the people there to make their move as easy and as comfortable as possible, and as fulfilling in the long term," she said. "Moving them isn't just a physical enterprise, it is a delicate human one."
The agency would not be involved in physically moving the setters, rather it would construct the new homes and communities they would move into, as well as helping families find the right locations.
The agency understands that it has to work with each family to match its religious, work, and social needs, Edelstein said. She added that this move would differ from others, because the population doesn't want to move. "That limits your ability to involve them in the decision-making process."
Hermesh and Edelstein said more information is needed, particularly financial information, before a final decision can be made.