12 historic hours in Gaza
Police, settlers, and soldiers give their perspectives on the pullout.
NEVE DEKELIM, ATZMONA, AND RAFIAH YAM, GAZA — It's close to 1 a.m. Wednesday and police chief Aharon Franko is leaning over the hood of a squad car.
Spread out across it is a satellite photograph of Neve Dekelim, with red lines mapping out every house in this Gaza community, which once numbered 500 families, and is now down to just over 300.
Other officers crowd around, preparing the paths along which they will send troops and police - working in concert with each other - when daylight breaks on the third day of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.
A woman appears, clapping in their ears and shouting. The officers, as well as special forces implementing the pullout have been met with a barrage of verbal abuse. Screaming, obstructing their way, and calling them war criminals are all part of the widespread tactics of the opponents of disengagement.
"If someone would behave like this towards me on the streets of Haifa or Tel Aviv, I'd arrest them immediately," Mr. Franko says. "But given the circumstances, we have to show restraint."
The officers clench their jaws and look away. Franko, in charge of a national police division that will escort soldiers to settlers' houses in the morning, indicates that he can already tell, "without checking," that the woman is an outside infiltrator who has come into Gaza to oppose disengagement.
"Those who are from the outside have done a lot of damage to this beautiful community," he says, looking at a landscape now dotted with burning dumpsters and refuse.
The outsiders, Israeli army estimates, are shaping up as the more troublesome sector of the population. They will be charged and removed from Gaza in the days to come.
But instead of getting bogged down in nasty cat-and-mouse chase from the start, Israeli forces are instead focusing on first removing the residents who have more at stake.
It is 2:30 a.m. and Neve Dekelim is still restless. Young people march around singing songs and blocking army vehicles. A middle-aged couple blocks an army bus for more than an hour, screaming themselves hoarse as the soldiers, inches away, say nothing.
"Why? I want an answer!" says the woman standing in front of the the bus shouts. "That's your job? Not to say a thing?"
"I have no explanation," the soldier says.
Turning onto another street around 2:30 a.m. however, reveals the site of a platoon of soldiers trying to rest, a few of them sleeping in the grass at the curbside.
One of the residents, a gardener named Efraim Goldstein, is having a quieter conversation with an officer in charge.
"Yes, I'm talking now, but he'll throw me out tomorrow," says Mr. Goldstein when he walks away, his arm wrapped around his son. "What can I do, fight them?" he says, gesturing over to the line of half-slumbering soldiers. "Any of them could be my son."
Stress and sun makes sure everyone is up early. By 7 a.m., the synagogue complex here is filled with worshipers. Men and women are already teary, including one wearing a special vest that identifies her as a professional social worker, who came as a volunteer.
"Every social worker here has her own way. My way is that I sometimes cry with people," says Iris Davidovich, who specializes in helping women and children.
She is also troubled, she admits, because the issues here hit close to home. For 22 years, she and her family have lived in a small, West Bank settlement close to Jordan, and fears that someday it, too, could be evacuated. "When we went out there, we were seen as a good Zionists," she says, her eyes brimming over again. "And now it's as if we're to blame whenever there's violence and terrorism."
It is just after 9 a.m., and a small unit of soldiers, men and women, are sitting on the soccer field of the Rafiah Yam settlement, now empty. Only graffiti greets them, reading "We Shall Return."
The soldiers talk about having to face a kind of mission they never before envisioned.
"To be honest, when I look at the [the settlers], if I were in their situation, I'd be doing the same thing," says one female soldier. "I completely understand them. I can see myself as one of those youth, dancing at the gates, blocking a soldier like me. I would do anything possible to keep my home. I would be kicking and screaming and they would have to tear me out."
She adds: "As much as they can cry there, I will cry inside. But we will need to do it because these are our orders."
Another young soldier, a blond woman with her hair pleated into a braid, says the key to making the operation go smoothly is patience.
"The border police would rather go in there with full force, breaking hands, doing what it takes to get it over with as quickly as possible. I would rather stay there and talk for three hours. That way, it takes a little bit longer, but we'll make sure no one gets hurt."
In fact, for many people, the process is painfully slow. Around the time the mixed Caracal unit is finishing breakfast, a group of soldiers walk up the path to the Gross family home.
The sign on the door says they have lived here for 23 years, and that they were evacuees from Yamit, the one settlement Israel built in the Sinai Peninsula, and then evacuated as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt.
Five soldiers file into the home. Then the negotiations begin.
"I want to know why!" The voice of the woman of the house echoes out into the hallway. "I want an answer. What did we do? You can't expel a person without a reason!" After 10 minutes of listening to them vent, the soldiers file out.
When questioned, the soldier in charge admits that this is their approach: Warn that it's time to go, offer help, leave them for a little while to collect themselves, come back.
At almost noon, soldiers arrive at the home of the Lilinthals. The couple, already great-grandparents, didn't want to leave, but started packing some of their belongings two weeks ago. When the soldiers arrive, they offer help with some last-minute goods. The Lilinthals are calm, even cooperative. But there is a pervasive tension.
The Lilinthals' son, Elitzur, looks at the officer in charge. "A disgusting day," he says.
"No argument," the officer replies. "What I suggest is that you take a few minutes to think about what you want to have with you right know. If you didn't plan anything yet, we'll take you to Kissufim and from there they'll put you in a hotel."
At noon inside the main office of his appliance import company in Gaza City, Palestinian businessman Ahmed Abu Aida turned on the television to catch up on the latest news of settlers and protesters resisting disengagement.
"I watched on TV how they dragged the settlers from their homes. It was live. I watched how they cried and screamed and they said, 'This is our land,' " he says.
It was then that Mr. Aida realized that the Israeli government was really committed to the withdrawal. He and the employees of his company, which has several stores around the Gaza Strip, talked about how, in just a few days, Israelis will be gone from Gaza. "There are only a few families left now," he says.
Images of settler holdouts and protesters being carried from Gaza gave Aida some hope that with the Israelis gone, Palestinians would soon be free to move about Gaza. "There won't be any more checkpoints and one can travel 24 hours a day from the north to the south [of Gaza] ... from Jabalya to Rafiah. It's really great."
Elsewhere, in a textile factory in the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat, Palestinian laborer Hamees Abu Jarrad, listened to the news on an Arabic radio station.
Like many Palestinians, he's happy to see Israel leave Gaza but also wants them to disengage elsewhere. "I thought, 'Thank God,' and I hope it will continue ... in the West Bank and Jerusalem, too. It's a great thing. It will help make peace between us and them."
It is near 1 p.m., a full 12 hours since Israeli forces began removing the settlers by force. With security forces facing low-level resistance in most of the settlements, military officials expressed satisfaction claiming the entire Gaza Strip might be evacuated much earlier than expected - possibly even by the end of next week.
"So far the evacuation is going according to plan," says Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, head of the Israeli military's Operations Division, during a visit to the southern settlement of Morag. General Ziv says that by the weekend he expected security forces would complete the evacuation of most of the Gaza settlements.
"I wouldn't call this a success," the senior officer says. "There are no winners or losers here. We have a responsibility to prevent the creation of a rift within the Israeli nation, and by obeying our orders we are upholding and strengthening the Israeli democracy."
Ziv - the author of the evacuation's operational plan - says he hopes the army will never have to participate in another pullout.
"Watching people carried out of their homes rips into my heart," he says. "These people are heroes and I hope we will never have to do this again."
• Yaakov Katz, Sheera Claire Frenkel, and Orly Halpern contributed to this report.