NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (Aug. 7)
Silvi Amar rests a hand on the cheek of her son, Assaf, reminds him about the food left in the refrigerator and walks out of her empty house. The Amar family is leaving their two-story, white-stucco home in the Gaza Strip settlement Neve Dekalim after 20 years. They do not want to leave, but Albert Amar, Silvi’s husband, is a policeman who feels he has no choice but to honor the law and leave with his wife and children before Israel’s withdrawal begins next week.
The family’s son Assaf, 22, a soldier in the Givati brigade who recently completed a course to become an officer, is staying behind. He looks on as movers pack up the contents of the house and carry bulging cardboard boxes to a moving van outside. His room, however, has not been touched. His computer, bed and books remain in perfect place.
“I will stay until the last day,” he says, his large, murky green eyes staring straight ahead.
The family’s split decision epitomizes the difficult choices faced by some of Israel’s roughly 9,000 settlers in Gaza as they decide whether to follow their hearts or the rule of law.
Assaf Amar says he understands why his parents have decided they must leave, but he still cannot reconcile himself to saying goodbye to the only home he can remember.
As a toddler, he moved with his mother and father from Beersheba to Neve Dekalim. His parents, who are modern Orthodox, say they were looking for a higher quality of life — a place where they could raise their family with religious values and a sense of genuine community.
They found all that in Neve Dekalim, the largest Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Here they raised their children, planted a lush garden and had a white picket fence near their house.
In his cluttered kitchen on Aug. 4, surrounded by scattered boxes, Albert Amar spoke of having to choose between duty and emotion.
“I am doing this because for the past 20 years I have been a man of law and order. The law is the law. It hurts inside, but I need to respect democracy and the law,” said Amar, a squat man with a mustache and a police cap. A revolver is attached to the pocket of his jeans.
His son Assaf sees things differently. Although he is a soldier and a newly minted officer, the planned withdrawal from Gaza feels to him like a betrayal by the establishment.
“It’s very hard to reconcile,” says Assaf of his connection to both the army and the Gaza settlements.
“This is where I grew up. This is where I learned my values. And it was because of these values I grew up and became part of the army. Now this place is about to be destroyed right in front of me. My motivation is suddenly drifting away,” he says.
He finds himself confused about his future within the army. Everything suddenly feels very upside down.
In the Amars’ sun-splotched garden, two Palestinian movers from Mawasi, a Palestinian village near Neve Dekalim, are at work disassembling light fixtures on a white plastic picnic table. An Israeli flag is strewn over leafy green plants in the corner of the garden.
Kamel Khaled, 38, has worked with the Amar family since 1987, when he began helping Albert Amar in a carpentry workshop on the settlement. He says he has mixed feelings about watching the family go.
“It’s not easy. It’s difficult to see him go,” he says, referring to Assaf’s father. “We’ve worked together for so long.”
But he adds that the physical restrictions on movement for Palestinians in Gaza have made life difficult for him and his family. “The situation of roadblocks and our inability to move freely is also not good.”
Khaled is looking forward to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
“Then there will be freedom. I’ll be able to go wherever I want,” he says.
Meanwhile, as the Amar family prepares to return to Beersheba, the southern city they left so long ago for the sand dunes and sea views of Neve Dekalim, others are illegally moving into the Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Katif.
Along the sea on the edge of the Shirat Hayam settlement, rows of makeshift tents have been set up by dozens of newcomers, most of them settlers themselves from the West Bank. Although it has been against the law for nonresidents to live in Gush Katif since the army declared it a closed military zone last month, thousands sympathetic to the pro-settler cause have snuck in.
“It’s a secret,” says Meir Menachem, 46, of how he and others managed to make it into Gush Katif. They hope that by fortifying the numbers of people in Gush Katif it will be more difficult to evacuate the settlements.
Menachem smuggled himself, his wife, and seven of their eleven children into Gaza from their home in the West Bank settlement Kiryat Arba. “Anyone who wants to get in just has to want it hard enough,” he says.
Exactly how many infiltrators are in Gaza is not known, but anti-withdrawal activists told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that the number is between 3,000 and 4,000. The army disputes that claim, putting the number closer to 2,000 and says that most would-be infiltrators are stopped before they can get in.
But the anti-withdrawal activists continue to arrive.
Sitting in the shade at a wooden picnic table in the so-called dining hall of the tent camp in Shirat Hayam is Maayan Arbel, who arrived in the middle of the previous night.
“It was an adventure,” says Arbel, 22, who waited several hours at a nearby kibbutz until a driver picked her up and drove her in. She received the driver’s contact information through what she described as an underground network of anti-withdrawal activists.
Arbel, who grew up in the West Bank settlement Beit Hagai, would not say exactly how she managed to get in, but she hinted that soldiers did not check her documentation carefully. All those who enter Gush Katif must present an identity card that shows they are residents of the settlement bloc.
Arbel said she would have come down earlier but as an art student in Jerusalem she first had to finish her last exam. The same day she finished the test, in art history, she began her clandestine journey to Gush Katif.
She is now sharing a tent with seven other girlfriends and plans to stay as long as needed.
“I want to be here,” she says, “till we are victorious.”