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Gaza Settlers: Battalions move them out but what comes next?

Israeli evacuation forces.

Israel sent approximately 45,000 soldiers and police to evacuate the settlers.

Deserted houses, smashed gates, garbage and children's toys are all that's left of what just a few days ago was a vibrant, blooming region of Israel.

Until the last moment, some of the Gaza settlers believed that the evacuation would be cancelled, that something would happen to change the course of events. Some even waited for the Messiah to appear. Most of them thought the soldiers wouldn't actually be able to pull them from their houses.

"If they come, they will find us all sitting around the table eating breakfast," Einat Yefet, a lively 18-year-old woman from Nezer Hazani, told me a few days ago. "They will see us, and they won't be able to expel us from our homes."

Many agreed. Others decided to leave.

"My mom went to Auschwitz with one suitcase. I will not let my kids see me leaving my house with one suitcase," said Bluma Adler of Ganey Tal. The Adler family took down the Israeli flag that had hung over their house for more than 20 years, said goodbye to the neighbors who had decided to stay and, for the last time, drove down the road out of Gaza.

"The army and police rammed down the front gate of what was supposed to be the stronghold of resistance to the pullout and occupied it in minutes."

On the morning of August 17, battalions of soldiers marched into the biggest town in Gush Katif -- Neve Dkalim. The image was both impressive and terrifying. The army and police rammed down the front gate of what was supposed to be the stronghold of resistance to the pullout and occupied it in minutes. Commanders carried with them a map indicating the houses their squad was about to evacuate. Horrified, the settlers looked out their windows and realized their time was up.

Hundreds of youngsters rallied in the center of town, shouting and chanting toward the policemen and soldiers.

"A Jew doesn't expel a Jew," they cried.

"Refuse! You can still prevent this crime."

"Look me in the eye: How can you expel me from my home?"

The young protestors burned garbage cans, cardboard boxes and, later on, even some houses.

Many of the protestors were newcomers, who came to Gush Katif to support resistance to the disengagement plan. By the time of the pullout, both they and the original settlers -- the longtime residents -- had overstayed their permits, breaking the law. But most of the residents of Neve Dkalim weren't seen in the center of town. They had shut themselves up in their houses, waiting for the evacuation squads to knock on their doors.

Smoke pours from settler house.

Young protestors burned garbage cans and set fire to some houses.

Hani Israeli stood, confused, near a group of packed bags. "I have seven kids. I packed a bag for each one of them. I don't even know where we are going to stay tonight," she said. "I've been crying and crying since Sunday." She looked helpless. But most of the belongings in the household were not packed. Books filled the shelves. In the closets were most of the family's clothes. The beds were still made, with new sheets.

In the living room sat Hani's husband, Gabi, with some of their children. "We are not going to sing 'Hatikva' [the Israeli national anthem]," Gabi instructed them. "We will sing 'Ani Maamin' ['I Believe,' a Jewish prayer]."

"Why?" asked one of his daughters.

"Because the state betrayed us," he replied.

When the soldiers knocked on their door, Gabi and Hani asked them to join them in the living room. "You are accomplices in a crime," Gabi told them, "and since you are willing to carry it out, I hope that it will haunt you all your lives." He took his prayer book, said the Jewish prayer for the dead, then, as the mourning customs require, slashed his shirt with small scissors. Hani and the children followed suit, all sobbing together.

Scenes like this were everywhere in Gush Katif. People wept -- old and young alike -- mourning what had been their home for so many years.

Then the evacuation began.

"The real motivation behind Sharon's plan remains unknown. What is known by now is that there are no real solutions in place for those who were evacuated."

The soldiers entered each house, presented themselves and asked the people inside to leave. Those willing to leave of their own accord boarded cars or buses that took them away. The military and police forces were instructed to act sensitively but with determination. Amazingly, it worked. Each squad had only a few houses to evacuate. They had plenty of time to negotiate with the families, help them pack and, finally, escort them to the buses. Many of the settlers said they couldn't walk out of their homes. With quiet understanding, the soldiers carried them out. Settlers and soldiers cried together in those moments.

Some insisted on resisting. They begged the policemen and soldiers to refuse orders, they yelled at them, cursed them, called them names. Some of these encounters were shameful. "Remember my face really, really well because I'm going to appear in your nightmares," said one woman to the officers who knocked on her door. "You are committing a crime -- in your pregnancies I will chase you," another woman yelled at policewomen. Some used their children, asking them to confront the soldiers. A few families in Kerem Azmona sent their children outside with their hands in the air and an orange Star of David attached to their clothes, raising fury in many.

Settlers create barriers of barbed wire.

At the more radical settlements, protestors fortified themselves at the local synagogues. Some threw acid at the police.

The hardest confrontations were at the synagogues. Both in Neve Dkalim and at the radical settlement of Kfar Darom, hundreds fortified themselves at the local synagogues and refused to leave quietly. It was hard to watch. The halls of faith became war zones; real violence erupted. The forces didn't carry any weapons, not even clubs, but lawless teenagers insisted on crossing the line. They threw acid at the policemen -- injuring 74 -- until all were arrested. They disgraced the settlers' reputation and caused many Israelis -- who were otherwise deeply moved by the personal tragedy -- to dislike them.

But not a single act of violence came from the evacuation forces. It was a glorious moment for the security forces and for law enforcement in Israel. And it wasn't just happenstance. Most of those who assembled the evacuation teams were officers. All of them were mature, well-trained men and women who trained physically and emotionally to perform this difficult task. They endured a lot, and, yes, some of them cried while carrying out their mission. But not one refused to complete the mission. Thus the greatest hope of the settlers -- and one of the biggest concerns of the commanders -- never materialized.

It was not, however, the finest moment for our political leaders. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his cabinet members ceded the stage almost entirely to army officers and police commanders. In his only speech this week, Sharon again failed to explain exactly why he was disengaging in this manner. The pullout was not done through negotiation with the Palestinians, and it isn't part of any peace plan. Many security experts say that it will not enhance our security. The real motivation behind Sharon's plan remains unknown. What is known by now is that there are no real solutions in place for those who were evacuated. Israel sent about 45,000 soldiers and policemen to evacuate the settlers. Less than 20 people are coordinating "The Day After." In just a few days, the Gaza settlers became refugees in their own country. It will take years to rehabilitate them.

Children crying during evacuation.

Some families sent their children outside with their hands in the air and a Star of David attached to their clothes.

During this dramatic week, most Israelis continued with their lives. We in the television news business were shocked to discover that our ratings didn't go up, not even a hair. For some viewers, the images were too hard to watch. Others, to be honest, just didn't care. When I returned to Tel Aviv, I found business as usual -- the cafes were packed, the tourists filled the beaches, the lines at the airport were long.

It ended fast. So fast, it's hard to believe that the dispute over whether to pull out lasted a year and a half. In less than three days, Gush Katif was nearly emptied of its Israeli inhabitants. The Israeli army hasn't carried out such an efficient and timely operation since the Six Day War. Symbolically, that war was the one to enlarge Israel. It gave us what we falsely saw as unlimited power over our neighbors and led to the creation of Gush Katif and its settlements. More than 1,500 Jewish families shared the Gaza strip with 1.4 million Palestinians. Israelis held a third of the land. And Israel had to deploy almost one solider for each settler in Gaza. It couldn't last forever. Now, it's all ended.

Thursday evening, Yefet wrote me a text message: "I was expelled just now from the only place I've ever known, from home."

An eerie silence took over Neve Dkalim on Friday afternoon. Then, suddenly, the irrigation system started up -- someone had forgotten to deprogram it. Sprinklers watered the grass. The lawns and public areas were all green, but there wasn't a single soul left to sit and enjoy them. The story of Neve Dkalim and Jewish settlements in Gaza was over.

Hadas Ragolsky is a senior producer at the Israeli national television station, Channel 10. She is responsible for the channel's special coverage of the Gaza withdrawal. Ragolsky is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.