NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip - The public face of the Jewish settlers in Gaza is one of resolve - united in their belief that government threats to evacuate them will never come to pass.
But the strain over the past few months is starting to show. Marriages are being tested as partners debate their future. Children are worried about losing friends. Business owners fear their investments will crash.
Gaza's welfare director, Oved Hazan, has published a booklet on how to cope with the anxiety of withdrawal. It is not so much the government's plan that is most worrisome as is the uncertainty of it all. People want answers, and there are simply none to give.
"I tell them the truth," said Hazan, 47, who has counseled dozens of settlers in the Gush Katif bloc over the past several weeks. "We don't know what is going to happen."
Newspaper headlines are often contradictory. Dates for evacuating the 7,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip vary widely, with unnamed officials quoted as saying it could be as soon as December and others saying September of next year.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says money is available for settlers who want to leave now, even though parliament has yet to debate a compensation plan. Sharon's aides say that several settlers have inquired about the money; settlers say they have signed a pact to reject such offers.
Part of the problem is that the Cabinet decision this month ratifying the disengagement plan left it open to interpretation. Ministers approved in principle uprooting the Gaza settlements, but left decisions on evacuations to future votes.
The Israeli government is laying the groundwork for an evacuation, such as halting development, deciding where the settlers should be moved and how to pay them for their land.
"While the prime minister decided to separate us from the Arabs, the government decided not to evacuate just yet," Hazan said. "It's something in between. People don't know what they are going to do. The government wants us to believe that we are doomed, that this is a done deal."
Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gush Katif settlers, said the booklet is a guide on how to stand up to what he called "psychological warfare being waged by the prime minister. He keeps saying we're going to be evacuated and it's not true."
The eight-page guide, distributed this week in mailboxes, does not mention withdrawal plans and instead offers general advice on dealing with stress that could be applied to any situation. It recommends meditation, yoga, spending time on family activities or vacations, and preparing a "happy list" of enjoyable activities.
There is another recommendation that seems to reinforce what many Gaza settlers are already practicing: denial that any premier could conceive of taking away what they consider a part of the Greater Israel they believe was ceded to them by God.
"A certain degree of denial can help," the booklet says. "We indeed do not know the future, and that is why it is sometimes good to ignore the bad things that perhaps will not happen."
The Israeli government, however, is making preparations as if evacuation is a done deal. A senior official described to foreign journalists this week the complicated schedule, which he labeled a "war plan."
Still, it was clear from the presentation that many aspects of the plan have yet to be formalized, such as property appraisals, whether to destroy houses or leave them to the Palestinians, and whether to leave soldiers along the Gaza-Egyptian border, a smuggling point for weapons.
The official acknowledged that the Israeli government is walking a fine line in advancing a plan that is not fully approved. "We do want to help people who want a new life," the official said. "But we don't want to be seen as manipulating people to take such a step before the decision of the government has been made."
Asked what could go wrong, the official smiled and said, "Everything."
Settlers already lead a stressful life. They have endured attacks by Palestinian militants and many deaths over the past three years. Now they are living with the added uncertainty of being forced out and, as Sternberg said, "having their homes turned over to their enemies."
Hazan said he felt it necessary to help people cope with the added stress. He said he hasn't been inundated with new cases, but wants to make sure the people under his care are prepared. Hazan is employed by the Gaza council, and though he does not live there, he said he feels a kinship with residents.
Hazan agreed that he is helping settlers wage a psychological war against Sharon.
"It's amazing how strong people are," he said, adding that he does not coach patients on whether they should stay and fight or take the money and leave. "That's not my job."
But many want to know what to do. Absent a firm government decision, Hazan said he advises settlers to take action, such as protesting or writing letters, to help them take charge of what seems to be a situation out of anyone's control.
One way the booklet says to combat uncertainty is by avoiding the news media:
"A news diet can ease the stress. In any case, much of today's news will turn out to be incorrect tomorrow."