Editor’s Notes: 48 hours

By David Horovitz August 5, 2005

On August 15 and 16, the army is going to send thousands of soldiers to encourage as many Gaza settlers as possible to leave there and then. They will have registered a protest by staying on, the army can essentially escort them out, and they won’t lose compensation

On Wednesday, the army takes a group of Israeli journalists into Gush Katif on what might be described as ‘the IDF’s farewell tribute to the Gaza settlers’ tour. It culminates in a briefing by a leading military officer, who describes the ‘impossible mission’ of evacuating thousands of reluctant Jews along a single narrow road, while accommodating thousands of clamoring local and foreign journalists, in the pervasive shadow of Palestinian terrorism.

Leading the trip for most of the day is Erez Katz, a smart, earnest, slender colonel who has served on and off in Gaza for years and who is all too able – as we make the four-km. drive from the Kissufim border crossing across the Strip to the entrance to Gush Katif – to detail the relentless list of shootings and killings every few yards that cost the lives of this Gaza family, that IDF colleague.

We pass the spot where, just two weeks ago, Rachel and Dov Kol were gunned down in their car as they headed out of the Strip after Shabbat en route to their home in Jerusalem. Katz shows us where gunmen ambushed Tali Hatuel in May 2004, where her car veered off the road, and where her attackers, in broad daylight, then closed in on her helpless family and shot them dead at point-blank range – Hatuel and her four daughters. He points out a lamppost beside which an officer friend lost his life in a gunbattle, and waves toward the houses – just meters from the narrow road – behind which terrorists hide out before making a murderous dash toward the passing Israeli traffic. And he tells us where he was himself involved in a shoot-out with a gunman who fired off a horrifying 60 bullets in three and a half minutes before being killed.

At the Kissufim border complex a little earlier, Katz has described the nightly ordeal soldiers are being put through by Gaza settlers and their supporters, who demonstrate at the crossing. ‘There’s no violence,’ he stresses, ‘but for hours every night they try to brainwash soldiers into refusing orders. They focus on what they see as the weak links – the girls, the Orthodox soldiers, the new immigrants. When they saw me, with my senior officer’s insignia, one night, I was subjected to a full hour-and-a-quarter-long routine.

‘We had anticipated these attempts to delegitimize,’ he says, ‘but it’s very hard, nonetheless. The efforts to compare us to Nazis…’ He pauses. ‘Those are the most painful. We tell the soldiers: Don’t take it personally. And afterwards, the soldiers gather in a horseshoe with their commanders and talk it through – how it felt, the lessons they need to learn.’

But once inside Gush Katif, with the border crossing behind us, Katz’s tone changes subtly – to one of admiration, if bemused, for the settlers’ tenacity. ‘A significant proportion still believes disengagement is not going to happen,’ he says, marveling a little. ‘We keep trying to tell them how it will be. We’ve been preparing for months. It is, of course, going to happen.’

Everything has been thoroughly rehearsed, he says. The small groups of soldiers who will be knocking on settlers’ doors have been told what to expect, how to deal with it, for how long to conduct a dialogue before a reluctant resort ‘to force, not violence’ where necessary; how to physically move people out of their homes without injuring them, how to get them onto the buses that will take them out of the Strip, how many policemen to deploy on each bus to keep things calm.

But still many, perhaps most, of the settlers are not reconciled to their departure. A few weeks ago, Katz says, a prominent member of one settlement told him that three homes had just been sold there, for NIS 70,000 each. ‘In lots of places where you’ll go today they’re still watering the lawns and planting plants. At Atzmona, one of the most wonderful settlements in its approach to the pullout, a man I know was planting crops less than a month ago that won’t come to fruition for more than a year. I asked him, ‘How can you make that investment? You won’t be here. He told me that, no, he has faith that he will be here.’

What does Katz mean by describing Atzmona as ‘one of the most wonderful settlements in its approach to the pullout?’ ‘They don’t want to make any trouble for us. But they don’t want to cooperate with us either,’ he says, adding, ‘We’re going there soon. You’ll see what I mean.’

FIRST, THOUGH, we go to the Palm Beach hotel, the beachfront sprawl from which 100 anti-pullout, non-Gaza residents were emphatically removed by the security forces on June 30. It’s an army base now – except, that is, for four families, long-term ‘tourists’ who were staying here long before the disengagement countdown began and who have been allowed to stay on a short while longer.

Intermittently the hotel was a thriving locale for those of the settlers’ champions committed enough to come and actually spend time with them over the years. Now, its demise is mirrored by the disappearance of letter after letter from its main entrance sign: Of the original PALM BEACH, somewhat ironically, only PAL is left now.

Next we pass the Gaza Jewish cemetery, with its 48 graves – one of the last things to go, Katz says, since Halacha dictates that a community’s dead be exhumed only after the last of the living have moved on.
We come to Neveh Dekalim, the largest of the Gaza settlements and the likely focus, says Katz, of the kind of rooftop resistance that people remember from the Yamit pullout in the Sinai 23 years ago. Why Neveh Dekalim? ‘Simply because it’s the only settlement with a significant number of buildings of more than one story.’

From high on the outside front wall of the hesder yeshiva here, a large banner proclaims that ‘With God’s Help, the Disengagement Will Not Happen.’ Inside the largely deserted study hall a TV journalist colleague asserts that ‘this is where they’ll blockade themselves in. This is where there’ll be trouble.’

One of the handful of students, born in Petah Tikva, living and studying here for the past two years, speaks bitterly to me on the stairs of a nation that has lost its direction, a people prepared to sacrifice core values. His is anything but a tone of messianic confidence. Neither is it one of violent resistance. It is the voice of despair.

Does the army plan to take over potential hot spots like the yeshivot and the synagogues? someone asks on the bus afterwards. Absolutely not, says Katz. ‘At one of the settlements the residents have told us that they would like to be in the synagogue when the army arrives. They want to be asked to leave together. To pray and leave. And of course we’ll accommodate that.

‘Settlement by settlement, we’re trying to coordinate with them. If they want to hold a farewell ceremony – with the army present, without the army present – it’s up to them. We have no right to decide for them. At Morag, for instance, they want the Givati unit that has been protecting them to do the evacuation.

‘Individual by individual, too, we’ll do what they want us to do wherever possible. One mother at Ganei Tal told me, ‘Just don’t drag me out. Do it with respect. Don’t pull me along on the floor.’

‘I know very many of the people here, and they won’t curse, they won’t spit, they won’t raise a hand [against soldiers]. But they also won’t voluntarily leave their homes,’ says Katz. ‘One Neveh Dekalim resident told me, ‘I won’t take the pictures off my walls.’ Another said her children won’t let her send off the compensation forms to the Disengagement Authority. Her children, she said, won’t let her betray the Greater Israel education she’s been giving them all their lives.’

Now we’re driving into Atzmona, to the pre-army yeshiva academy and its memorial room. The photos of 15 youngsters are displayed on the walls, five of them teenage students who were gunned down when terrorists infiltrated the settlement three years ago.

The yeshiva’s Elisha Peleg, a slight, bearded man whose voice is barely audible, tells us, ‘We’re trying to stop the evacuation. We’re not sure we’ll succeed. This settlement believes that, ultimately, it is up to the Israeli public whether we are here. At present…’ He pauses, sighs, and begins again. ‘At present, it seems that a considerable proportion doesn’t want us here. So, if it’s not to be this time around, it will be next time around. Maybe, this time, we didn’t manage to get the public with us.’

AS WE head toward Kissufim, I ask Katz what he thinks of the legislation that renders the Israeli civilian presence in Gaza illegal as of 12:01 a.m. on August 15 and gives the settlers only 48 hours after that to leave without losing a substantial proportion of their compensation.

It’s not a fair question to put to a uniformed officer and he, commendably, evades it. But he does relate to the importance of those 48 hours. On August 15 and 16, he says, the army is going to send thousands of soldiers to every settlement in Gaza, to do everything it can to encourage as many settlers as possible to leave there and then. They will have registered a protest by staying on, the army can essentially escort them out, and they won’t lose compensation.

It’s his hope, Katz says, that entire settlements might even use that 48-hour window to leave en masse. ‘Until a month ago I thought that 90 percent would still be here come August 17. Now I anticipate 50-50.’ Perhaps 15 or 20 percent of the settlers will be gone before the August 15 deadline, he calculates, ‘and another 30-35 percent will depart on August 15 and 16.’

Unless, that is, Palestinian terrorism complicates this tightest of timetables.

We’re out of Gaza now, back at Kissufim. A short line of Israeli vehicles awaits the security checks now mandated to keep non-residents out of the Strip. The protest area facing the army’s HQ is empty, but later it will fill with demonstrators and would-be infiltrators. Along the border fence, in each direction, soldiers deploy like life-and-death tennis umpires – looking one way to prevent Jews getting into the Strip illegally, the other way to prevent Israel-bound terrorists getting out.

An impossible mission? I remember the corny sign that used to hang in a repair shop in the neighborhood where I grew up: ‘The difficult we do right away. The impossible takes a little longer.’

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