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David Bunfad carried a photo of his daughter Shimrit as he and residents of the Neve Dekalim settlement prepared to be evacuated.
David Bunfad carried a photo of his daughter Shimrit as he and residents of the Neve Dekalim settlement prepared to be evacuated. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)

Settlers' rituals mark eve of Gaza pullout

Religious, secular Israelis sharing common anguish

ALEI SINAI, Gaza Strip -- Counting the days before soldiers escort him from his home in this mostly secular Jewish settlement, Arik Harpaz cranked up his boombox. He was breaking the rules on a religious holiday, but he shrugged and sang along with the lyrics written by his daughter, who was killed here by Palestinian gunmen.

Farther down the coast, in the more devout settlement of Neve Dekalim, David Bunfad began his fast to mark the holy day. Then he went to the synagogue he built to honor the daughter he lost to a mysterious illness, the same year Harpaz's daughter died, and carried the Torah scrolls out of the Gaza Strip for safekeeping.

As the Israeli army begins knocking on doors today in the Gaza Strip, ordering Jewish settlers to leave by midnight tomorrow, communities are marking the eve of their forced removal with rituals that reflect the different viewpoints of Israel's religious and secular citizens even as they express a common anguish.

In Alei Sinai, on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip, most of the 350 residents gathered Saturday night near the spot where Liron Harpaz, 20, was gunned down along with her boyfriend in October 2001. Teenage girls wearing nose rings, tank tops, and lots of hair gel sobbed and hugged each other.

Town leaders urged the community toward a reluctant closure. They called on their neighbors to focus on the future and negotiate with the government, despite their anger, to move them all to the same town so that they can continue to live together outside the Gaza Strip.

''We're going to leave with our backs straight and our heads held high," said Dana Chetrit, the settlement's culture and education manager. ''What we've built, no government can take away from us."

Afterward, Harpaz lit memorial candles at the foot of the rough-hewn boulder he erected to mark the site of the attack. Because the stone is the community's most powerful symbol, he said, he will go along with his neighbors' plan to wait in their homes in quiet protest until the army comes to get them.

But he has mixed feelings because that decision means he will leave on an army bus instead of loading the stone onto a trailer, hitching it to one of his beloved dune-climbing cars and driving away at the moment he chooses.

''I like to be in control," he said. ''I want to go with my stone, with my car."

Yesterday in Neve Dekalim, the Gaza Strip's largest Jewish settlement, the outpouring of grief came in a different form. Hundreds of people gathered in the town's cemetery, most dressed according to Orthodox tradition, with young women in floor-length skirts and covering their hair with scarves. They mourned and prayed in the hot sun, clutching the graves that must be removed after the community is evacuated.

In a town where many people are still praying for a miracle to stop the pullout, no one talked of closure or called the ceremony a farewell.

Instead, they marked one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, the ninth of Av, with more than the usual passion. The date commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in 422 BC and 69 AD, events that Jews associate with centuries of loss and persecution.

Tensions flared just before midnight as hundreds of youngsters fanned out on the main road outside the settlement, gearing to prevent troops from entering. When soldiers in an army jeep arrived for a meeting with settlers, some of the youngsters smashed its back-seat windows, pulled out a stack of aerial photographs of the area and set them on fire.

The anniversary also sparked tensions in Jerusalem. Skirmishes erupted among Jews, Muslims, and police as about 150 Jews tried to approach the Temple Mount, where the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque sits on the site where many religious Jews believe the temple should be rebuilt.

The date of the pullout is no coincidence to Shuli Bunfad, David's wife, who wept and laid her head on the grave of her daughter Shimrit.

''This is our generation's destruction," she said earlier, as she watched movers load her stove and refrigerator, wrapped in plastic, into a truck.

''Someone will have to pay for this," said Shimrit's sister, Dikla.

The Bunfads vow to leave quietly, but not all their neighbors do.

The army expects the evacuation of Neve Dekalim to be among the most wrenching and potentially dangerous aspects of the pullout. Many residents have refused to pack or make plans, and hundreds of right-wing protesters, some from settlements in the West Bank, have moved in, promising that the army will have to drag them out and raising fears of clashes.

The settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 war, are considered illegal encroachments on occupied territory by much of the world and a major obstacle to peace with Palestinians, who say settlement growth is destroying their hope for statehood.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel last year ordered the evacuation of 8,500 settlers from Gaza, declaring there is no future for Jews there, but more than 210,000 remain in the West Bank in settlements funded and encouraged by successive Israeli governments.

Settlements have attracted secular Israelis who believe they are helping the country's defense while enjoying tax breaks and prime property; as well as religious ones who believe they have a God-given right to the land.

But the pullout has exposed differences between religious and secular settlers. Though both groups feel betrayed by their government and heartbroken to leave their homes, secular settlers have taken a more pragmatic approach, acting more quickly to reach compensation deals, though often unsatisfying ones, with the government. Akiva Eldar -- an Israeli journalist and author of ''Lords of the Land," a history of settlements -- predicted that secular Israelis would start moving out of the West Bank settlements and stop thinking of them as just another part of Israel, even as religious settlers dig in for a last stand.

''Israelis who don't identify with the messianic [wing] will not feel so comfortable any more to live in settlements, to identify with settlers," he said.

In their campaign against the pullout, Alei Sinai residents have tried to distinguish themselves from more religious settlers farther south. Their town, they argued, was built on no man's land at Gaza's border, while Gush Katif, the main settlement bloc that includes Neve Dekalim, is deep in the strip, dividing Palestinian lands. And they presented themselves as people that secular Israelis could identify with.

Harpaz's wife, Etti, said Israelis do not understand that not all settlers are religious fanatics; that many came for the quality of life. ''It's beautiful here," she said.

To cap their ceremony, Alei Sinai residents gave a quavering rendition of the national anthem. In Neve Dekalim, residents sang of their faith in the coming of the messiah.

If less religious, Alei Sinai's residents were no less grief-stricken. The local rabbi, Yishai Barkhen, told the weeping crowd they had accomplished centuries' worth of good deeds even though, he teased, he could rarely fill the synagogue. ''We're all crying, boiling, burning, as if we'd put our eyes in the Dead Sea," he said.

Etti Harpaz and Liron Harpaz's sister, Shani, stood off to the side, framed by the lights of Gaza City and the nearby refugee camps. Behind them an army vehicle patrolled the fence erected after Liron was shot.

Arik Harpaz, Liron's father, has strategic qualms, not religious ones, about leaving this land. He worries that Palestinian rockets will have a clear shot at the Ashkelon power plant he can see from behind his house.

He plans to bury one of Liron's army dog tags, which he wears around his neck, at the spot where her blood soaked into the lawn.

Shani Harpaz, 26, a Tel Aviv university student who sees herself as politically left of her parents, said the pullout was supposed to be a ''humane act" to help Palestinians. But the government's lack of planning, she said, ended up ''running over the little people," like her family. They are moving for the first few months to a hotel in Ashkelon, where the manager promises a temporary home in the garden for the memorial stone.

On Saturday evening, most families were sitting in their homes, many with the windows and roof tiles removed and packed. As the sky turned to purple, Harpaz popped in a CD of Liron's poems set to music by popular musicians. Outdoor music is not allowed on the temple anniversary, he said -- but in a dying town, who was going to stop him?

Many residents scrawled messages on their houses. Liron's parents had copied her poems onto the stucco walls:

''We've put roadblocks at our country's borders / We've put a roadblock at the border of our town / We've put a roadblock at the border of our world / But why is there a roadblock at the border of our hearts?"

Her father said he would tape Liron's portrait to the front door for the first soldier to see.

''I want this soldier to feel what I feel," he said.

Globe correspondent Dan Ephron contributed to this report. Anne Barnard can be reached at abarnard@globe.com.

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