Wednesday, August 17, 2005:
It's 3:30 p.m, half way through this terrible and historic day.
Already, the communities of Peat Sadeh, Nissanit and Dugit are no more. Bedolah's 35 families have almost all left; Atzmona, Morag and Neve Dekalim won't last past tomorrow. Remaining communities are to be dealt with in the coming days.
The images I'm seeing today are gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. Many instances of soldiers crying as they carry out the orders to evict families and dismantle synagogues and yeshivot.
Most importantly, so far there has been no violence. People have not gone willingly, but they have been dragged out Martin Luther King style without lifting a finger against the forces sent to evict them. everyone acknowledges that the task is painful for the evictors as well as the evictees.
EARLY MORNING: Hundreds of teenagers and young people converge on
the Kissufim junction into Gush Katif from the surrounding fields where they'd hiked through the night to come to do anything to try to stop the evictions. Many of them were arrested, others managed to outrun the Border Police and escape back to the fields.
50,000 troops and police arrive to take part in the Gush Katif destruction. As the platoons of IDF, Border Police and regular police arrive by the busload and get into formation, we can see the pain and unease written all over their faces. Many pull their hats down over their faces to escape recognition from the press cameras.
All the troops are unarmed, carrying only water bottles and backpacks. The temperature quickly begins to climb into the upper 80s.
The communities slated for destruction today are Ganei Tal, Neve Dekalim, the largest town in the Gush; Atzmona, Bedolah and Morag--all in the southernmost part of Gush Katif.
The sounds of the shofar (ram's horn) are heard from Bedolah.
In Neve Dekalim, some of the hundreds of teenagers who have infiltrated into the area over the past few weeks set fire to tires and garbage cans. One of the residents quickly shows up to douse the flames and yells at the teens to allow the residents to conduct the painful process with dignity and without violence.
The youngsters congregate in the two main synagogues and negotiations start up between the specially trained conflict negotiators of the IDF and community leaders. The IDF would like to encourage the protestors and residents to leave without force.
One resident, Yedidya Fridman states cateforically: "We're staying. This is a criminal act. WE are not the unfortunate ones--we have direction, commitment to ideals, we'll go on with clear consciences. It's YOU, the evictors who will have trouble after this."
9 a.m GANEI TAL:
Here, like in every community, residents and teenagers try to engage the soldiers in dialogue to try to persuade them to refuse the order to evict Jews from their homes. Soldiers have been trained not to react, and they look down at the ground, or over the ehads of their interlocutors.
Most interesting--as the columns of soldiers and police march in formation into the communities, many of them look around in wonder at the beautiful places they've been sent to destroy. Like most Israelis, many of the soldiers have never been to Gush Katif before and you can see the astonishment on their faces as they look around.
A dreadful scene unfolds in front of the press. A totally distraught father, bearded wearing a kinitetd kipa and glasses, holds up his 8 year-old daughter in front of him and screams at the impassive line of soldiers: "Here, take her: expel her! That's what you came for, didnt you?--here, do it!"
10:30 a.m. Ganei Tal:
A burly 6'5" tall soldier bends down to comfort a 10 year old boy in an orange T-shirt. The boy wipes his tears with the bottom of his shirt as the soldier pats him on the back.
NEVEI DEKALIM: 10:45 a.m
Reporters from all over the world are running around in their red baseball caps. A few attempts by the Yassam unit to capture some of the hundreds of teens milling around the entrance to the community are captured on film, with smoke from burning tires in the background. A busload of teenagers is sent out of Neve Dekalim.
MORAG 11 a.m.
Incredibly it's the air force that has been dispatched here to do the work. 34 families lived here until last week. Several have already left, but their ranks have vbeen strenthened by some 200 teenagers from outside. 2,500 soldiers and Border patrol march in, accompanied by two huge bulldozers that start to dig huge trenches just inside the gates.
A number of kids run towards the hothouses behind the community -- a dangerous place to be, since they're in range of enemy fire from Rafah.
A few yards away from the grinding bulldozers, a couple of two year olds play in a plastic bucket of water as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
NEVE DEKALIM 11:30 a.m
More than a thousand men and an equal number of women are stuffed
into two separate synagogues. Dialogue goes on between IDF negotiators and community leaders as to how they will leave.
Soldiers show up to empty out the kindergarten here. Sobbing fathers hold on to their toddlers who suck contentedly on their bottles. After a few minutes of pleading with the blond commander, one of the fathers asks everyone to cover their heads while he recites Psalm 121:
I lift my eyes up to the hills -
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord
the Maker of Heaven and Earth
He will not let your foot slip-
he who watches over you will not slumber
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The commander looks down at his feet as some of his soldiers wipe away tears and sweat. At the end of the Psalm, the Morag men all make a tear in their shirts in the traditional sign of Jewish mourning before they and their children are quietly escorted to the waiting buses.
Several male soldiers watch carefully over strollers as mothers busy themselves with older children.
Almost one thousand people from all over the country have somehow managed to overcome several army checkpoints on the road to get to Kissufim. They sing and wait and talk to the soldiers trying to convince them to stop their work.
At the yeshiva dozens of students and teachers pull soldiers into a circle and they dance, sing and weep together. Several of the observant soldiers are sobbing uncontrollably as they hug their peers. The Rosh Yeshiva (head of the Yeshiva) hugs each student before they leave quietly to be transferred to their new yeshiva at Yad Binyamin.
Soldiers hand out bottles of water to yeshiva students dancing here.
Announcement that Knesset Member Tzvi Hendel will be the last one to leave this small community.
Knesset member Benny Elon is here to witness the removal of some one hundred residents who have gathered in the synagogue. They're pulled out still wearing tallit and tefillin. No violence at all--just tears and pain on all sides.
One of the men who comes out tells reporters: "They've turned our Gan Eden (Garden of Eden) into Gehinnom (hell)."
Jerusalem 12:30 pm
PM Sharon and President Moshe Katzav call a joint news conference. Sharon says nothing new. "My heart is breaking too at these painful scenes," intones Sharon. "But it's important for the future of Israel."
ATZMONA 1 p.m
People here have made no preparations at all for their departure. As the soldiers show up to evict them, families slowly emerge with backpacks and strollers.
GANEI TAL 1:30 p.m
Quiet resistance as people leave hugging the soldiers. Most of the community has agreed to be resettled in the community of Chofetz Chaim, but the houses aren't ready yet. They'll be sepending the next few weeks in cheap hotels in Ashkelon, Beersheva and even Eilat.
NEVE DEKALIM 1:40 p.m.
The yeshiva of Rabbi Tal is about to be herded onto buses. For some reason, the IDF refuses to allow coverage--the only such incident so far.
YESHA Council member Shaul Goldstein says he's disgusted with the lack of preparation for the next day--he announces that the council has set up a Moving Center at the Shapira Center about 4 minutes away. Here he pledges to take care of the evacuees until they get settled.
Goldstein says the most moving moment for him today was dancing together with resident and soldiers in the synagogue earlier.
Cabinet Minister Matan Vilnai arrives. He's an outspoke proponent of the Gaza retreat. He lasts about 4 minutes outside his vehicle before he's hit on the head with a raw egg. His security people hustle him away into his car.
The community of 75 families scheduled for eviction tomorrow, announces that they have decided to go en masse to set up a tent city in front of the Kotel in Jerusalem since the government has not figured out any accomodation solution for them. They were supposed to be housed in hotels at the Dead Sea and Eilat while alternative accomodations are arranged.
BADOLAH 2 p.m
I see my friend Mike Cohen, a veteran IDF conflict negotiator who honed his skills during the standoff at the Church of the Nativity a few years back, working in the synagogue at Bedolah. He's escorting out Rabbi Menahem Froman from Tekoa out of the building hugging a Torah scroll. The women's section of the synagogue is packed with girls and women sitting on the floor. They're eventually escorted out by women soldiers whose faces drip with sweat and tears.
ATZMONA 3:30 p.m
The most disgusting spectacle of the day. One large family with 7 or 8 kids comes out of their house with their hands up wearing orange Jewish stars on their chests. Each of their kids is crying--but it seems like a theatrical spectacle. Naturally, the media punces on the photo op. I can almost guarantee that it's this picture that will appear on front pages all over the world tomorrow.
NEVE DEKALIM 3:40 p.m
Soldiers break into a house where the family has refused to come out willingly. After calling out to them by name to open up and warning them they're about to break in, the soldiers push down the door and find the parents and four kids sitting on the living room floor. After a few moments, they all emerge sobbing.
Other families in Neve Dekalim are loaded onto buses. It takes 8 soldiers to drag each man to the bus. Six women soldiers to pull each teenager from their home.
Behind a container, one woman soldier completely breaks down. She slides to the ground sobbing and refuses to be comforted by a fellow soldier.