NEVEH DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (Aug. 19)
The streets of Neveh Dekalim were quiet and mostly empty, the silence broken only by the twittering of birds and the occasional army jeep driving through what was once the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza. The palm-tree lined streets were blackened from small fires set in recent days and garbage overflowed from trash canisters.
A handful of families were not evacuated in time for Shabbat — when withdrawal operations were halted across the Gaza Strip. They would be taken out by the army on Sunday.
Among them was Moti Shomron, 48, who sat on the edge of his shady garden Friday morning and mused that he would one day be back.
A religious Jew, he believes it is the biblical birthright of the Jewish people to settle Gaza.
“We believe 100 percent that the nation of Israel will return to Gush Katif. Maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe in ten years,” said Shomron, his bright blue eyes twinkling over his white beard. “What happens in the Torah is what happens,” he explained, sitting back to take in the view of his two-story ivy-covered house.
Elsewhere, things weren’t so quiet. A Katyusha rocket, one of three launched from Jordan, landed near the Eilat airport in southern Israel, smashing a small crater into a local road Friday, although it did not explode. Another rocket landed near a U.S. Navy battleship docked in Aqaba, Jordan, killing a Jordanian soldier but injuring no Americans. An Al-Qaida linked group claimed responsibility for the attack on the Internet.
Meanwhile, Israeli security forces finished evacuating the Gaza Strip settlement of Gadid. Dozens of anti-withdrawal activists had taken to the settlement’s synagogue and to rooftops in protest, but the settlement’s families departed peacefully and forces completed the evacuation Friday afternoon.
In addition, Israeli troops began digging trenches around Gaza Strip settlements to prevent Palestinian infiltration. Troops also began demolishing homes in the Kerem Atzmona settlement, a task that will continue into next week.
An Israel military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that Israel expects to finish the Gaza Strip withdrawal by Aug. 23, and will move on to four West Bank settlements the following day.
Most of Neveh Dekalim’s 500 families had been evacuated on Aug. 17-18 when teams of soldiers went from house to house informing residents that the time had come to leave.
Some greeted the soldiers with resignation, offering a few bitter words and last-minute attempts to convince them to ignore their orders before agreeing to walk out of their homes and take the buses waiting to shuttle them out of Gaza.
Still others locked themselves inside and made the soldiers pry their doors open with crow bars. At the home of Dikla and Shimon Cohen, soldiers had to physically drag out almost every family member and the group of friends they had staying with them.
Dikla Cohen, 41, mother of nine, clung to the mezuzah and doorpost and had to be escorted out by a pair of female soldiers as she trembled and wailed.
“Why? Why?” she shouted out as she made her way for the last time down the pathway through her garden lined with marigolds.
On Thursday, as most of the remaining families in the settlement were being evacuated, a massive force of soldiers and police surrounded and eventually entered Neveh Dekalim’s synagogue complex, where almost 1,000 teenagers and young people had holed themselves up vowing not to leave.
Most of those inside the complex had snuck into Gaza illegally hoping to reinforce the settler ranks to make evacuation by the security forces more difficult.
A female army officer tried to be heard through a megaphone, but with every word she spoke the voices of some 500 teenage girls and young women gathered in the synagogue rose higher in prayer.
The teenage boys and young men had meanwhile gathered across a cement plaza from the women, in the Sephardi synagogue.
Singing prayers from the Yom Kippur service, many of the young women and teenagers wept and shook their hands in the air.
The atmosphere at the synagogue where the girls prayed and tried to stave off the evacuation was of a religious revival show — with the mood swinging from despair and wails to the shaking of tambourines while jumping up and down to upbeat religious chants.
“God is Lord,” they repeated in booming unison before breaking out into song, “God is the Messiah, Our King.”
“It’s our country, no one can take it away from us,” said Ligal Aharoni, 20, as she stood in the back of the synagogue where the women were gathered shortly before the security forces swarmed in.
The soldiers entered from two ramps and quickly blanketed the plaza that earlier in the day had been covered with young people alternately praying and lounging on mattresses, catching cat naps in the shade.
The soldiers, many of them the same age as those they were ordered to evacuate, stood in long lines, their arms linked together.
The teenage boys and young men put up a fierce struggle inside the synagogue where they had been gathered. Like the soldiers outside, they too linked arms, and sat on the floor. Many of them resisted wildly when teams of six soldiers approached them individually and physically pried them away from the others.
Many of them continued to thrash about forcefully as the soldiers dragged them out by their arms and legs. They appeared exhausted as they were taken down a ramp lined with a wall of other soldiers. Some of them wrapped themselves in prayer shawls and read from prayer books as they were hauled away.
Others lashed out, calling the soldiers carrying them away criminals and traitors, some of whose own eyes were wet with tears.
“Enemy! Leave me alone,” said one young man with red hair as he was carried toward the buses.
By Friday, most of the buses left in the settlement were there to take the majority of the remaining police and soldiers home. They, too, were leaving Neveh Dekalim.