Families pleaded with soldiers not to evict them from their homes of 20 years, yeshiva students ripped their shirts in mourning and anti-pullout activists cursed policemen as criminals as Israel evacuated Neveh Dekalim, the largest of its Gaza Strip settlements. Smoke from burning tires and rubbish curled into the hot air as a haunting silence fell over Neveh Dekalim.
Despite the resistance here and elsewhere, Israeli officials said the withdrawal from 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank was going better than expected. By Wednesday evening, more than 60 percent of Gaza settlers had left, leading Israel Radio to report that the evacuation would be completed well ahead of the Sept. 4 deadline.
But that’s not to say that all was going smoothly: In the West Bank, an Israeli settler shot dead three Palestinians on Wednesday.
Police said the man grabbed a gun from a security guard at the Shiloh settlement’s industrial zone and opened fire at Palestinian workers, killing three and wounding two. The assailant was arrested and disarmed.
In southern Israel, a woman set herself on fire at a police checkpoint to protest the withdrawal. The woman, a West Bank settler in her 60s, doused herself with gasoline and lit herself on fire.
A police spokesman who described the incident as a politically motivated suicide attempt, said the woman was admitted to a hospital with 60 percent of her body burned.
In the Gaza settlement of Morag, a woman stabbed an Israeli soldier with an IV needle near a synagogue, Ha’aretz reported.
In Neveh Dekalim, meanwhile, passions and tensions ran high even as the scene remained relatively peaceful.
Some houses already were shuttered and abandoned. At others, boxes waiting for moving vans were stacked on porches and patios.
Teams of soldiers went through the neighborhoods negotiating with families to leave their homes peacefully. In calm voices, they met the frenzied pleas of families telling them that their orders were immoral and should be ignored.
Gidon Bashari, who has lived in Neveh Dekalim for 17 years, had not packed a single box. He told the soldiers who came to his door that he would leave peacefully — but not until they sat with his family and let them explain why they did not want to go.
“We are not violent people,” said Bashari, a high school principal who works in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. “Our struggle is in the spirit of the nation. What you are doing is anti-democratic and against our country, and history will judge you.”
Up the street from Bashari’s house, Sagi Ifrach, 23, sat on the red-tiled roof of the house where he grew up, refusing to leave. Surrounded by friends singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, and waving the Israeli flag, they mocked the soldiers in the garden below.
Security forces eventually climbed a ladder and convinced Ifrach to come down. Wearing an Israeli flag like a cape, Ifrach sobbed as he descended the wooden ladder.
Nearby, a little girl with long brown hair cried uncontrollably as she leaned against her father’s leg. The family had just been evacuated.
While most families eventually agreed to leave their homes without a fight, there were scattered examples throughout the Gush Katif bloc, which includes the majority of Gaza settlements, of people who had to be physically dragged out their front doors, past gardens they had carefully planted and into dusty buses waiting to take them to hotels inside Israel.
About 50 soldiers entered the foyer of Neveh Dekalim’s Yamit Yeshiva, waiting to evacuate those inside. Worshipers held a final service, breaking into tears as they took scissors and knives to rend each other’s shirts in a sign of mourning.
Soon the wails turned to prayer and song as about 200 worshipers swayed arm-in-arm and sang of Jerusalem. As they prayed, some of the soldiers joined arms and swayed with them.
Scenes of intense emotion were seen throughout the day as soldiers escorted families from their homes. Many of the soldiers also wiped tears from their eyes and tried to comfort one another with hugs.
The soldiers faced intense hostility from settlers and large numbers of anti-withdrawal activists who have flooded Neveh Dekalim in recent weeks. They were bombarded with shouts of “traitor” and even “kapo,” a reference to Jews who served as supervisors in Nazi concentration camps.
As a massive force of police and soldiers entered Neveh Dekalim on Wednesday morning, they were booed and hissed.
People chanted “Jews don’t expel Jews,” one of the anthems of the anti-Gaza pullout movement. Fingers were pointed as teenagers and middle-aged residents told the security forces that they should be ashamed of themselves and that they were committing a crime against the Jewish people.
Anti-withdrawal activists, many of them teenagers, had stayed overnight at the two main Neveh Dekalim synagogues, which face each other across a plaza.
Hundreds gathered to pray as the sun rose. On one side of the plaza, men in prayer shawls swayed in the pinkish, early-morning light, as women prayed on the other side.
Eliana Braun, 16, from Ginot Shomron, a West Bank settlement, was among the girls who had spent the night at the Sephardi synagogue. She said she had not believed the evacuation would really take place — but that in any case, the struggle against it had been worth it.
“Now people are more connected and understand what is happening here,” she said. “I don’t think it will influence” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “but this was not meant for him. Instead it was meant to wake up the country.”