For one family, giving up Gaza ends a dream

The evacuation of 8,500 settlers in Gaza and the West Bank begins Monday.

Soon to be evacuated and later demolished, the house of Shimon and Sara Snir now sits in shambles.

The painting of a wizened rabbi rests on the salon floor amid a maze of Israeli army-issued boxes brimming with toys and puzzles. A power screwdriver whirs as bed frames are undone. Outside, a ditch has been dug around an olive tree that will be uprooted.

Thirteen years ago the couple followed faith and a dream to Gaza, which they believed to be part of the biblical birthright of the Jewish state. Now, like many of the 8,500 Jewish settlers bracing for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza next week, their family of nine has reluctantly begun to gather up their belongings. The moving truck arrives Sunday.

"You can't leave anything. If you don't take it, [the army] will destroy it," says Shimon Snir, while supervising a Palestinian worker taking apart a gazebo. "There's so much to pack we don't even know where to start."

On Monday they will get their eviction notices and Israel's long-anticipated evacuation of 25 settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank - a landmark pullback from territory conquered in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state - will officially swing into motion.

Jewish settlers who haven't already left will then get a two-day grace period to depart. Teams of soldiers and policeman are poised to drag out stalwarts who defy the Aug. 17 deadline, a mission that many worry could spiral into violence and even bloodshed over the course of an evacuation that could last more than a month, according to the army.

But even though 55,000 security forces will take part in the evacuation, Shimon clings to hope that somehow the soldiers will be unable to extract the residents and some 2,000 sympathizers who have infiltrated the settlements over the past few weeks. So, he, his wife Sara, and seven children ranging in ages from 17 years to 18 months will await the soldiers in an empty house stockpiled with water, flour, and flashlights.

The family, which is eligible for $500,000 in compensation will be fined more than $100,000 if they stay past the 17th, but, they say, money is little solace when you're forced out of home and community.

"Here is where your life is. You build it from start to finish," says Shimon, his skin a rich bronze from years under the Gaza sun. "We won't go like they want us to. They will have to carry us. You have to understand, a person doesn't abandon his house willingly."

The pull of Gaza

As a young couple the Snirs first fell in love with Gaza in the mid-1980s when it was mostly a collection of red-roofed houses in the middle of the sand. There was peace and quiet, and few people. But instead of settling down, they headed to Los Angeles for a taste of life in America.

Returning home six years later, the pull of Gaza remained strong and they moved with their two US-born children to Gaza. Instead of giving them pause, the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987 only whetted their appetites to live in Gaza and help claim the disputed territory for Israel.

The Snirs believed Israel had come to Gush Katif to stay. They invested themselves in the settlement block's burgeoning agricultural business - growing organic cherry tomatoes for export and then pineapples - and an intimate community of farmers who shared their ideology.

Over a decade, the agricultural land owned by the family increased ninefold to 6.5 acres, bringing in income of $330,000 last year. Now Shimon will have to relocate elsewhere inside Israel, losing out on at least three growing seasons, he says.

Farmers like the Snirs are eligible for compensation for the greenhouses from the Israeli government and the World Bank, as well as free land elsewhere. But, Shimon says, that won't cover their losses.

Even though they moved to Gaza shortly after the first Palestinian uprising, the Snirs say they never anticipated living in a war zone. During the first days of the second Palestinian uprising, gunfire and mortars kept them awake at night. As the intensity died down, occasional shots in the distance became background noise. Several weeks ago, an unexploded mortar shell fell next to 10-year-old Adi.

And yet, leaving Gaza will offer no comfort. "It might give me personal peace of mind,'" Sara says, "but it won't give the country peace."

Indeed, the conflict with the Palestinians isn't over, merely, land in the West Bank and Gaza, they contended. "This isn't about 1967. It's a religious conflict. It's a conflict over the land of Israel," Shimon says.

Starting over

On Wednesday, Sara picked up the keys to the family's temporary home for at least a year - a cookie-cutter bungalow in a three-month old neighborhood that will absorb one-fifth of the Gaza evacuees.

Located just 15 miles north of Gaza, clouds of dirt filled the air of Nitzan from bulldozers racing to pave the neighborhood's main road. As Sara inspected the domicile just one-fourth of the size of their Gaza home, the usually cheerful mother dabbed her eye. "We'll be living like sardines," she says. "See how small it is? We will all have to shrink to fit in."

Back at the Snir's home in Gaza, young Neorai eats cereal, while pots and pans are being hurriedly bubble-wrapped. The younger siblings haven't yet digested the meaning of the move, says Arbel, the oldest child.

Unlike the thousands of settler youths arriving in Gaza to actively resist pullout, the teenager says she has spent her final nights with friends at the local youth club. "My friends are realistic," she says, her voice choked. "They know that if it happens, there's nothing we can do to stop it."

Outside, amid rows of hothouses, Shimon oversees Palestinian workers uprooting 1.25 acres of pineapple plants that he wants to replant inside Israel. Some will suffer trauma, but others will eventually bear fruit - a catharsis not unlike what awaits the residents of Gush Katif.

"This week isn't that bad. Next week will be the really difficult one," he says. "Next week there will be no workers, no greenhouses. There will be nowhere to run. You'll have to sit down and think about everything. That won't be easy."

Timeline for Gaza, West Bank pullouts

Monday, Aug. 15: Official deadline for Israeli civilians to leave the Gaza Strip. Troops will instruct remaining settlers they have 48 hours to leave.

Aug. 15-16: Grace period when settlers can still leave Gaza voluntarily and in their own cars. The army will help them pack without space constraints. Settlers who leave by midnight on Aug. 16 will still be entitled to full compensation.

Aug. 17: Forcible evacuation of the remaining settlers begins. The army will pack the settlers' belongings but limit each household to two containers. Large possessions and cars could get left behind, and families could lose up to 30 percent of their compensation.

Sept. 1-7: Troops will begin dismantling the four West Bank settlements of Ganim, Kadim, Homesh and Sanur.

September: Troops will begin demolishing settlers' homes. Demolitions will take two to three weeks to complete, an army official says. During this time, the Israeli military will be completing their own pullout from the Gaza strip.

October: Palestinians are expected to assume control of the settler areas. Celebrations are planned.

Source: AP

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