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Resignation and Resistance: Israelis begin historic Gaza pullout

Moshe Okonov.

Moshe Okonov arrived three weeks ago from Brooklyn, New York, to oppose the withdrawal.

Five days before the withdrawal, I visited Gush Katif -- the Israeli section of the Gaza Strip -- and found a surreal landscape. On the one hand, there were deserted houses, their windows and doors pulled out, roof tiles stripped, walls covered with slogans like "This was my house," "Sharon is a dictator" and "Never again." On the other hand, there were families still sitting on their porches, carrying on with everyday life -- their grass still shining green and their children riding bicycles through the deserted neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the army platoons had just finished their last drill before carrying out one of the hardest tasks they've ever been ordered to do -- that of evacuating more than 8,000 Israeli citizens from their homes.

As preparations for the pullout began, I found Eli Moses packing his house in Neve Dkalim, the largest town in Gush Katif. Moses, a religious Jew, was one of the few actually preparing to leave. I was struck by the fact that Neve Dkalim still appeared to be a normal town, without the chaos one would expect to find in a place that's supposed to be empty in a few days. "We believe and pack," Moses said, trying not to see the dissonance in that sentence. "Some people have a strong belief that everything will be cancelled, but I'm afraid we will not have enough time to pack if it did happen," said Moses, referring to the unspeakable -- the evacuation. "Maybe I'm not a great believer," he added gloomily.

While his young twin girls played in the garden, he sent his older daughter to catch the family's four dogs. "There are so many issues to solve when you have to move for good," he said. "We are lucky. We just need to find solutions for our dogs and turtles. Some people here need to decide what to do with a wife or husband's grave." Over the phone, he promised a neighbor he would find a spot to plant a tree in memory of a friend killed by a Palestinian missile.

Illegal residents are most likely the biggest problem the police and army face in completing their mission. Unlike most settlers, who have declared they will leave the area quietly, the newcomers are more radical, ready to "do whatever it takes."

A few minutes later a woman named Laava Zuriel, from Shilo in Samaria, approached us. She demanded to know why we weren't interviewing those who won't give up, those who aren't packing, those who are cooking food for Sabbath. Moses looked hurt.

"When did you arrive here?" he asked her.

"A week ago," she replied. "I couldn't stay at home when all this is happening."

"Well," said Moses, "if it does happen, you have a house to go back to. I don't."

Zuriel was not the only one to sneak into Gush Katif in recent weeks.
In the local Chabad house (Chabad is a branch of Hasidism that tries to spread Jewish philosophy) are many others who came to strengthen those fighting against the withdrawal. Among them I met Moshe Okonov of Brooklyn, N.Y. He arrived three weeks ago with 25 other Americans. "This is a beautiful war zone," he told me, without even guessing how this must sound to those who live here. "We came to encourage the people," he said. But I felt he came to participate in his own version of summer camp. Okonov and his friends are breaking Israeli law by staying in Gaza. Almost a month ago, the Israeli army closed entrances to the area, demanding that every person who enters present local I.D. or a special entry permit. Nevertheless, thousands have entered. "What is legal here?" he laughed, when I asked him about it. "We came to protect our Jewish country. We will do whatever it takes."

Later we saw Okonov and his friends touring Neve Dkalim, a town they had never before seen. They were wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Americans oppose Jewish expulsion."

Reporter Hadas Ragolsky.

Hadas Ragolsky (left) in Gaza reporting the story for Israeli television.

How did these people cross the army barriers? Some of them just walked in, others disguised themselves as locals or got a settler I.D. Some overstayed their entry permits, and yes, unknown numbers were let in by soldiers sympathetic to the cause. Now the settlers' leaders declare that there are 15,000 illegal residents in the area. The army says the number is around 5,000. Both sides remember well that before this all started, the army declared that evacuation was doable as long as the number of illegal residents did not exceed 3,000.

Now these illegal residents are a serious headache -- and are most likely the biggest problem the police and army face in completing their mission. Unlike most settlers, who have declared they will not fight the soldiers and will leave the area quietly, the newcomers are more radical, ready to "do what it takes." (Just 10 days ago, 19-year-old Jewish terrorist Eden Nathan Zada thought that killing four innocent Arab citizens of this country would be what it would take to derail the government's plan. His action caused us all great shame and, obviously, did not stop the withdrawal.) Now we are all afraid of the one individual who will seek to kill the prime minister or who will decide to kill himself -- and others -- in order to stop the pullout. The feeling here is that the tiger is still stalking, waiting to attack.

Although now it seems clear that we are not facing a war of brothers, the actions of individuals can endanger the fragile stability between the settlers and the rest of the citizenry. And more, they can endanger the already shaky relationship between religious and nonreligious Jews in Israel.

In Ganey Tal, one of the blooming agricultural settlements in Gaza, I saw a version of the fragile relationship between Israelis and their government. I found Judith Zwig standing sad and confused in the middle of her half-packed kitchen. At age 58, the mother of five knew she had lost her home, her work and the chance to provide for her family. "I raised my kids to give and give and give to this country. I kept on telling them this is for the state of Israel and the people of Israel, our people, but now I don't know if I want to live in a state that can do to us what they are doing," she said.

House marked with graffiti.

Abandoned settler homes with slogans written on them create a surreal landscape in Gaza.

This is the real tragedy. Although it has been easy to demonize the settlers, the majority of them were good citizens of this country.

The government of Israel and the people of Israel had more than a year to make the transition easier on the settlers, but failed to do so. Now less than a fifth of the settlers have even a temporary solution to their housing and other living problems. Most of the children are not registered for school. Even government officials admit that most of these people will never find new jobs. Today, the settlers feel betrayed and unwelcome. This sense of loss and betrayal may lead some of them to action they did not originally plan to take. It could and should have been prevented.

This is why, less than a week before it all comes to an end, the Israeli leaders are now speaking out to the people. In a rare public speech, President Moshe Katsav asked the forgiveness of those being evacuated from their homes. "The pain of abandonment is too powerful to bear. I feel your pain," said Katsav. "In the name of the state of Israel, I beg your forgiveness for the demand that you leave after decades of building and sacrifice." But Katsav also emphasized the need to obey the law to protect the Israeli democracy. "After a year of difficult struggle and sharp debates, the time has come," he said. "You must respect the decision of our national institutions. ... The opposition to the disengagement must not harm national security, democratic values and the most sacred values of Judaism, such as ahdut yisrael, the unity of our people. Dramatic as the dispute may be, it does not justify a rupture in the nation."

Katsav was joined by the chief of staff, Lt. General Dan Haluz, who called upon soldiers and their commanders to complete the mission. "Those who are being evacuated and their children are part of us -- some of them are our brothers in arms in the past and at the present. We are now standing for the moment on two different sides of the mission, but soon after, we will stand again shoulder to shoulder."

The one figure to remain silent is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He told senior columnists from Yedioth Haaronoth, the leading Israeli daily, that he is not going to ask for the settlers' forgiveness. "It isn't a matter of forgiveness," he said. Sharon told them he will address the nation on the first day of the disengagement. He plans to acknowledge the pain of the settlers and to wish them all good luck. But he will not ask for their forgiveness even though he was one of the leaders who urged them to settle the Gaza Strip.

It is hot now in Israel, around 100 degrees in Gaza. The heat, the tension and the pain may lead both sides to actions they will regret later. Five days to the pullout and no one can really dare to predict what will happen -- including me. We all hope it will end quietly.

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.