Goodbye Morag

This tiny settlement near the shores of the Mediterranean, in its last days of existence, has been torn into unhappy — and often angry — factions this week as Israeli security forces loitered around its sandy streets, together with hundreds of activists.

The soldiers are here to evacuate any and all Israelis who remain. The activists, for the most part, are nonresidents who have illegally entered to beef up settler ranks over the past month. Both sides are dug in, determined and confident that they will prevail in a battle of wills over the future of the Israeli settlement enterprise.

A similar scene is playing out over other parts of the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza. Everyone expects discomfort, agitation and grief. No one talks of wanting violence, but that fear — that unknown — also is in the air, carried along in the long days and the intense dry heat of the Mediterranean summer.

Soldiers with the Israel Defense Forces ignore the demonstrators and walk straight up to the front doors of whatever families are left in the sunny community situated along the border near the Palestinian city of Rafah, breaking the tension that had built up prior to the start of the evacuation operation on Monday. They hope to be invited inside for a chance to persuade settlers to leave willingly while they have the chance.

Morag — an isolated settlement of 40 families — was established almost two decades ago by a tight-knit group of Israeli pioneers looking for a better quality of life they hoped to establish on the sandy dunes of Gush Katif. They built up a prosperous middle-class community, with mostly two-story white homes with large backyards. Sent here by the various Israeli governments over the years, many of them speak of their “betrayal” by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — once their biggest supporter — who has pushed through his government’s disengagement policy.

Stopped at the entrance to the settlement by a crowd of several hundred anti-disengagement protesters, Golani Brigade commander Col. Erez Zukerman asks those gathered to accept the inevitable.

“We didn’t come here to clash with you, but to offer assistance and to help you, the people we once protected and worked hand in hand with,” he calls out.

Suddenly, a young man with tears streaming down his face emerges from the mob.

“I was an officer under your command,” says the young man, Liron Zaidan. “You taught me what it was to be an officer and protect the Israeli people. We are not your enemy, but you have turned us into your enemy. Just six months ago, I was wearing an army uniform and serving side by side with you.”

Recognizing his former subordinate, Zukerman grabs Zaidan in a bear hug, and, with tears in his eyes, declares that the Israeli people would remain united forever.

“This is our job,” Zukerman says later. “I love these people, and even though today it appears I am meeting my former officer on the other side of the fence, I am confident he will come back and one day serve alongside me again.”

The settlement’s homes cluster around a main square, which houses the community center and synagogue. Across town from where Zukerman embraces his former comrade, Ya’acov Etzion prays for divine intervention that he believes can still save his home of 10 years. He says he is proud that his father had been a leader of the infamous Jewish underground that had plotted unsuccessfully to blow up the Temple Mount, an Islamic holy site, in the early 1980s.

The goal then had been to thwart Israel’s evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula after the peace treaty with Egypt. The Temple Mount was not destroyed, and Israel and its settlers left the Sinai.

Etzion has no attacks in mind. Instead, he intends to rely on God — and his refusal to begin packing, saying: “I will not lend a hand to this evil deportation.”

When officers show up at his door, Etzion refuses to let them in, meeting them instead on the front steps of his white, one-story house. Etzion pleads with them to refuse orders and to halt this “mission of destruction.”

Neither side prevails in this encounter of rhetoric. But Etzion expects that the soldiers will be back, and next time, they do not intend to stop at entreating words alone.

What will happen then? Etzion says he does not yet know.

“I will make it very difficult for them,” he says, as he sits on the floor, playing with his 1-year-old daughter, Shira. “They will probably succeed in kicking us out, but we won’t go easily.”

Not everyone is as determined as Etzion. Down the street, Gavriel and Nurit Yitzhak have already finished packing up their home of 15 years. They have even pulled the windows out of the walls.

What will they do with the windows?

Nurit shrugs. “As long as nothing is left for the Palestinians, I am happy,” she says with a heavy sigh.

“We will leave,” adds Nurit, looking about a living room filled with boxes and dismantled kitchen cabinets. “It is over for us, and we are not interested in fighting.”

When the military entourage arrives — led by Lt. Col. Assaf Yisrael from the Golani Brigade — Gavriel meets them with open arms and invites them to sit down and talk over coffee.

“I need another container to move my belongings,” Gavriel tells Yisrael, while pointing at his air conditioners and other odds and ends on the floor. Yisrael says he will do his best and would consider bringing by his private military jeep.

Security officials are now talking optimistically, as though they can evacuate the entire Gaza Strip — not in three weeks like originally planned — but by the end of next week, by Aug. 26.

“No one is standing over our heads with a stopwatch,” says Brig. Gen. Hagai Dotan, head of the police evacuation team. “But if things continue to go smoothly, we may be finished with Gaza much earlier than expected.”

While confident that settler resistance won’t halt the pullout, Dotan admits that Palestinian mortar fire on settlements during the evacuation “could slow things down and even suspend the withdrawal.”

Still, with the disengagement practically a done deal for the settlers and the evacuating forces, a whole new reality is coming into play.

Col. Yizhar Peled, an evacuation commander, lives in Kfar Azza — a tranquil, picturesque kibbutz situated within the established borders of Israel, but only three kilometers from Gaza City. After the Gaza pullout, Peled’s hometown, together with cities such as Sderot and Ashkelon, could become the new targets of Palestinian terror organizations acting from just over the border.

“I am aware the pullout could have devastating effects on my hometown,” Peled says. “It will be difficult for us all, but [the Gaza withdrawal] is the law and there is no turning back.”