The last hours of Kerem Atzmona

For Israeli soldiers and settlers alike, the evacuation of a Gaza settlement was emotionally wrenching.


Rebecca Sinderbrand
August 18, 2005 8:28PM (UTC)

Yesterday morning in Kerem Atzmona, nearly 400 residents awoke in tents and small homes clustered on top of a hillside close to the sea. By late afternoon, they were gone, replaced by twice as many Israeli soldiers and policemen patrolling the former Gaza settlement. The camp bore signs of family living and a hasty exit: broken toys and half-cooked meals left out in the blistering sun.

As troops approached, a few young men ran. Some families barricaded themselves inside their homes. Others paced the settlement aimlessly, drifting from soldier to soldier. Many were wearing orange Stars of David on their clothing, a controversial protest symbol joining the official color of the anti-disengagement movement with the insignia Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany; one man had a single sleeve pulled up to reveal large blue numbers handwritten on his arm.

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For a tense half-hour on the hilltop, soldiers and settlers eyed each other uncertainly, as journalists milled between the two groups. Then troops knocked on the door of one of the small houses. Through an unshaded window, a mother and father were visible, cradling small children. In unison, half a dozen children inside the home started wailing and screaming, a piercing chorus that quieted the rest of the camp. A boy of about 12 ran outside and began hysterically yelling at the soldiers. "Jewish Nazis! That's what you are. What makes you think you can take us away from our house?" As the rant continued, his mother wordlessly watched the display from the window, then retreated further inside the house.

Miki, an Air Force veteran of the Lebanon invasion, standing nearby, grimaced. "It hurts," he said. "All the feelings are coming in. But this is the price of democracy."

It was a painful day for both sides, as similar scenes played themselves out across Gush Katif yesterday. There were sporadic outbursts of fierce resistance on the first day of forced evacuation. In Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement, more than a thousand religious students barricaded themselves inside a synagogue, and fires blazed in the streets. In Shirat Hayam, residents reneged on an evacuation deal they'd made with authorities, then spread nails on the road to thwart approaching troops. In Kfar Darom, a woman facing eviction set herself ablaze.

But in general, the area was filled with the same sort of controlled chaos as that in Kerem Atzmona. Troops moved quickly and methodically, and by day's end, 14 of 21 Gaza settlements were completely or mostly empty. The unexpected speed of the operation has taken planners by surprise. What was predicted to take weeks may now be over in a matter of days. Some evacuees prepared to head other settlements in the West Bank, making a grim calculation Palestinians fear -- that today's eviction makes it much less likely they'll be asked to leave their next destination.

In retrospect, the violent clashes earlier this summer that seemed to signal a tough fight to come may have marked the peak of settler resistance. The riots may have been intended as a show of strength, but the resolution -- a swift, overwhelming response from authorities -- left many in the movement feeling weak. News coverage of the Gush Katif skirmishes sent sympathy-driven support for the settlers sliding among the Israeli public. But between the lines, many in the movement may have read the death sentence of organized resistance as well. As the first week of disengagement drew to a close, fewer than a third of Gaza's settlers remained.

An hour after troops arrived, one Kerem Atzmona family began loading a van in silence, tears streaming down their faces, as their children sobbed. One gray-bearded man pleaded with troops to let him go. "We were so naive. We didn't have time to pack." As soon as they released his arm, he sprung at the group. "Disobey!" he shrieked.

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Helmeted teams moved from house to house, breaking down doors with surgical precision. Most of the male settlers had to be carried to the buses, some praying, one blowing a shofar. After depositing a teenager in one of the transports, one soldier broke down, wiping tears from his eyes with his shirtsleeve as he exited. Female settlers were escorted by female soldiers, leaning on their arms as they sobbed. Throughout the camp, settlers alternately fought and embraced soldiers in small clusters of intense emotion. Deputy Army Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky arrived to survey the scene. "I have seen soldiers crying everywhere today," he said. "You can understand why."

As the final residents of Kerem Atzmona were loaded onto waiting buses, a woman in a threadbare tent, flanked by a barefoot child in a flowered dress, began deliberately preparing lunch. A lone female soldier inside looked around helplessly, trying to decide what to do. Finally, she began to wordlessly help the woman slice her vegetables. When the pair finished, they packed the meal. Then the woman took her child's hand, gathered her prayer book and her lunch and followed the soldier to the last waiting bus without a backward glance.


Rebecca Sinderbrand

Rebecca Sinderbrand is a writer based in New York.

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