Gaza Strip crossing is sealed

Removal of settlers will end 38 years of Israeli occupation

August 15, 2005|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip - Israel closed the main crossing point leading to its settlements in the Gaza Strip at midnight yesterday to all but military vehicles, signaling the start of the evacuation of the 21 settlements and the troops protecting them.

Israeli soldiers were expected to fan out across the settlements early today, serving residents with eviction notices.

The withdrawal will end 38 years of occupation of the Gaza Strip, which Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. Four West Bank settlements will also be removed.

In a first sign of active resistance to the evacuation, the tires on three army jeeps that pulled into the main settlement of Neve Dekalim late yesterday were flattened by protesters, and a truck carrying soldiers was vandalized and spattered with paint.

Early today, there were exchanges of fire between soldiers and Palestinians near the Kfar Darom settlement, and mortar shells fell in two settlements and near an army base. No casualties were reported.

The nearly 9,000 Gaza settlers and an estimated 5,000 supporters who have infiltrated the settlements will have 48 hours to leave on their own before forcible eviction begins Wednesday. Some residents have begun moving out, while others, including many of the newcomers, have vowed to resist.

On the eve of destruction of their communities, the settlers observed a fast day yesterday marking the traditional anniversary of the destruction of the two ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem, many with a keen sense that they were reliving history.

The day of mourning, known as Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew calendar month of Av, carried another layer of meaning for people at Neve Dekalim, a community of religious Jews that is the largest Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip.

Worshipers sat on the floor and listened to readings of the ancient Book of Lamentations, whose verses mourn the destruction of the first Jewish temple and Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the 6th Century B.C. The second temple was sacked and burned by the Romans in A.D. 70.

`The same fire'

"This is the same fire," said Yosef Elnekaveh, a prominent local rabbi, as he watched a man burn debris from his house after movers had emptied it. "This is the fire of the destruction of the temple."

On the streets of Neve Dekalim and the neighboring settlement of Gadid, there were signs of the approaching end.

Discarded household items littered sidewalks and yards, moving trucks stood near some houses and abandoned equipment was scattered among the remains of greenhouses whose plants had withered. Garbage bins overflowed, and bus service had stopped.

Efrat Weiss, 22, who came to synagogue services with her baby at the start of the fast Saturday night, said that a passage in Lamentations spoke to her.

"Remember, Lord, what happened to us, consider and see our misery," the passage says. "Our property has gone to strangers, our houses to foreigners."

Some people cried out when the verse was chanted, and a rabbi who addressed the worshipers lamented that the deed was being done this time by a Jewish government.

Weiss, who was raised in Neve Dekalim, said that she felt she was going through a "personal destruction," and that the settlers still were "hoping for a miracle."

Desperate prayers went up at an emotional gathering at the cemetery of Gush Katif, the main bloc of Gaza settlements, where residents gathered under a baking sun to bid farewell to loved ones whose remains are to be dug up and moved to Israel.

As relatives of the dead knelt beside graves, men and women sang and cried for more than two hours, forming circles around tombstones, some marked with Israeli flags and the orange ribbons worn by opponents of the Gaza pullout.

Rabbi Elnekaveh, in a tearful plea, asked the dead to intercede with the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs.

"Tell them you don't want anyone to touch you," he said, weeping with the crowd. "Tell them you want your graves opened only when resurrection comes."

The 48 buried settlers include civilians and soldiers killed in nearly five years of violent conflict with the Palestinians.

Dan Davidovich sat next to the flag-draped grave of his daughter, Ahuva Emergi, who was 30 when Palestinian gunmen killed her more than three years ago in an attack on the road to Gush Katif.

"We have not come to say goodbye," Davidovich said. "I still believe that it won't happen."

Practical plans to thwart the withdrawal were laid out at a general meeting Saturday night in Neve Dekalim at which hundreds of settlers were briefed by their leadership on what to expect this week and how to react.

Advocating resistance

Wall posters near the main synagogue advocated resistance actions, among them flattening the tires of military and police vehicles, breaking out of surrounded settlements by cutting their fences, tipping over buses brought to transport evacuees and undermining the resolve of evacuating soldiers by huddling together, parents and children, in back rooms.

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