NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza — For months, Israelis have been hearing about the massive opposition awaiting Israeli military and police forces should they try to implement the disengagement plan. But as the day finally arrived, the evacuating forces were met with scattered and leaderless resistance from youths in the streets and families waiting in their homes. For the most part, there were more tears than violence.
Less than 24 hours after the forced evacuation began Wednesday, the commanders of the operation were speaking in terms of hours rather than the allotted three weeks when it came to the question of how long it would take to complete the withdrawal from Gaza.
Two days of clashes and arrests preceded the forced evacuation, with some youths puncturing the tires of army vehicles and others verbally or physically attacking military officers. And on Wednesday, one disengagement opponent in her 60s set herself on fire in Israel to protest the pullout, and a Jewish settler in the West Bank grabbed a gun from a security guard at the industrial zone in the settlement and killed at least three Palestinian workers.
For the most part, however, any negative developments were more disturbing than they were intimidating.
In Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza, there were the occasional bursts of violence — Gershon Hacohen, commander of the evacuating brigade, was physically attacked by some 200 members of an extremist yeshiva — but mostly people cried, expressed disbelief that the evacuation was indeed taking place and seemed to search for something to hang on to, now that their dream of staying in Gaza was dying.
“I really thought that if we stand firm, the [Israeli military] would give up and go away,” a woman told this reporter tearfully. A settler showed one of the evacuating officers, an old army friend, a refrigerator full of meat. “This was for the barbecue celebrating your defeat,” the settler said.
On Wednesday, with a scorching sun above and 85% humidity in the desert air, the people of Neve Dekalim knew that many of the other Jewish settlements already had given in without a fight. In nearby settlements such as Rafiah Yam, Peat Sadeh and the three others in northern Gaza, almost everybody left, even before the deadline imposed by the government. It also had become clear that any hopes for massive refusals to obey orders would go fulfilled. In fact, not a single soldier in the evacuating forces — “the first circle,” in Israeli military lingo — refused to obey orders during the first three days of the operation. The army and police had such a huge advantage in numbers and strength that even belief in miracles became impossible for most of the settlers.
Settlers and “guests” — an estimated 5,000 people from the West Bank and Israel had infiltrated into Gaza in the weeks before the August 15 deadline — vented their frustration and anger by shouting insults at the troops. “How can you do this? You put your rank to shame,” they hollered at officers. Troops entering homes for forced evacuation were greeted with signs bearing the family name, stating how many years the family had lived in its home and warning that “should you help to expel this family, you would be taking part in the worst crime in the history of the Jewish people.”
While many in Israel saw these signs and expletives as examples of the settlers’ extremism and irrationality, a closer look revealed mostly despair. The evacuees failed to understand why Prime Minister Sharon, “the father of the settlements,” was doing this to them. “Everybody is asking us ‘What did you do right?’” an elderly woman said. “But I ask, what did we do wrong?”
Many people seemed to be in complete denial. Some settlers could be seen watering their gardens only a few hours before the soldiers came.
After a group of youths set fire to a trash container, one resident shouted at them: “Why do you do this? Where will we place our garbage?”
They reminded him that he was about to be taken away from his home forever.
“I will never despair,” he responded. “I intend to live here for many years more.”
Others expressed relief that the ordeal soon might be over. “I haven’t packed anything yet,” one resident said, “and of course I wish the whole thing would never happen. But I told my kids to remain at home, and I forbid them to take part in the harassment of the soldiers. Should they come, I will let them pack my things and go away quietly.”
The soldiers were noticeably hurt by some of the words aimed at them. Some female soldiers wept openly, and army psychologists spoke of possible traumas to young men and women facing such hostility. But many soldiers expressed sympathy at the plight of the settlers and listened patiently to their stories of woe. Although by the end of the day, the commanders were predicting a speedy end to the operation, there was neither joy nor even feeling of achievement. The disengagement plan may be moving toward completion, but the sense of evacuation no doubt will haunt everyone present — settlers, soldiers and media — for a long time.