NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- Israel began its historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip yesterday, with soldiers delivering eviction notices to Jewish settlers and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon telling the Israeli people that after 38 years they could no longer hold on to the coastal territory.
At Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement, settlers and protesters locked arms and blocked gates to prevent Israeli troops from entering the community yesterday to deliver the notices. This morning, however, Israeli police cut through the main gate and seized control of entrances to the settlement.
''Now the police can decide when it opens and when it closes," said police spokesman Avi Zelba. ''Now people who want to move can go out freely."
Unlike yesterday's confrontation, few protesters were around during the raid.
Alhough the resistance at the gates yesterday was applauded by most people here, it appeared to be driven by nonresidents, opponents of Sharon's disengagement plan who made their way to Gaza illegally in recent weeks -- mainly from settlements in the West Bank -- to take part in the looming showdown.
In his address to the nation, Sharon, a longtime champion of the settler movement, described the evacuation of all the Gaza settlements and four in the northern West Bank as ''the most difficult and painful step of all." He also vowed to strike at Palestinians ''more severely than ever" if they responded to the withdrawal with violence.
Palestinian militants have mostly held their fire in the days leading up to the disengagement from Gaza, which Israel captured from Egypt in the 1967 Mideast war. But two rockets slammed into Gaza settlements early yesterday morning, one landing in the backyard of a Neve Dekalim family whose home was largely packed up.
In Gaza City, Brigadier General Yehiya Ayoub Abu Samra of the Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry said Palestinian security forces were ready to take control of the land Israel evacuates.
''In two weeks, we will be in charge of some of the Israeli positions in the south. European, Palestinian, and Egyptian companies will start destroying the houses of the settlements," said Abu Samra, who has helped oversee Palestinian plans for transition in the area.
Most of the Gaza settlements are clustered in two areas. In the mainly secular communities of northern Gaza, residents continued streaming out in an exodus that began weeks ago. At one of them, Nisanit, residents were busy dismantling the community synagogue and removing the Torah scrolls. Two secular settlements in the northern West Bank were also nearly empty by the end of yesterday.
However, before this morning's Neve Dekalim raid in the heart of Gaza, where mostly religious Jews have settled, soldiers carrying eviction notices would not even try entering several communities there, backing off from what they feared would be angry confrontations.
''We made a big point today. We were able to show that the army was unable to carry out its orders," said Meir Siegelbaum, 23, a protester at Neve Dekalim who moved to the Gaza settlement from the West Bank a week ago.
The events yesterday were in some ways a dry run for both sides ahead of the actual evacuation. Soldiers and police had intended to go door to door at all the settlements to deliver a letter that says residents must leave within 48 hours or face forced eviction starting tomorrow.
''This is a difficult mission for us all. . . . Nevertheless, we will see this mission to its end, while providing any possible help and assistance," the letter said.
Some settlements allowed the soldiers in to enter after a negotiation. At Neve Dekalim, protesters guarded the gates beginning at dawn. Hundreds of youngsters crisscrossed between the main and back entrances, responding to the tinny blare of a community public address system and the directives of a few older activists, including members of the main settler leadership in the West Bank and Gaza known as the YESHA Council.
Rows of school-age girls squatted in front of the main fence and sang religious songs. Men in beards swayed in prayer.
''Why are they wearing black uniforms instead of their usual blue ones," Dan Davidovich, a resident of nearby Ganei Tal, said when a line of policemen formed outside the settlement. ''That was the color of the Gestapo uniform," he said.
At the settlement's back gate, confrontations lasted for hours, with some protesters trying to shame soldiers into walking out on the mission.
''Jewish soldiers don't just follow orders," a 51-year-old Neve Dekalim woman who gave only her first name, Rachel, implored a woman officer wearing black sunglasses. ''After all the things that happened to us in history, you can't carry out evil deeds just because you're told to do so." The officer, a captain, listened silently for several minutes as she drank water through a hose attached to her backpack, then walked away.
Settlers said authorities had underestimated their determination to stay. They said troops would have a much tougher time pulling residents from their homes starting tomorrow.
But Eival Gilady, the prime minister's adviser for coordination and strategy, denied the settlers had constrained the army's operations.
''It is not that we were not able to get into some of the settlements -- we decided not to try to do it," he said. ''I do not think there is any settlement that we are not able to get into, and once needed, we'll be in and get all the people out."
Rather, he said, the goal of the operation was to offer help with packing and moving to any families willing to accept it. ''It is not a day of law enforcement; we are not trying to evacuate any family today." He warned that troops would eject protesters more forcefully than families with children.
Gilady, who is a reserve brigadier general, estimated that 700 to 800 families -- about 4,500 people -- would leave the Gaza Strip tomorrow. Jewish settlers numbered 8,500 in Gaza before the disengagement began.
On almost every block in Neve Dekalim, families could be seen packing yesterday and removing boxes from their homes, though they appeared to be outnumbered by families who would stay until troops take them out.
Hani Tsadok, who has lived in Neve Dekalim for 22 years, was among those planning to leave before tomorrow's deadline.
''We decided that we couldn't fight this evil institution. We did everything we could," she said yesterday in her kitchen, where cupboards had been removed and appliances were covered in plastic wrap.
Tsadok and her husband woke up at 4 a.m. yesterday when a rocket fired by Palestinians smashed into their yard, a few feet from the home. It was the third time their home came under fire since the Palestinian uprising began nearly five years ago.
Tsadok's husband, Itzik, said he did not want to be around to see scuffles between residents and troops. ''Our war here is lost. Now we have to make sure to prevent this from happening in Judea and Samaria," he said, referring to the rest of the West Bank, where Israel has about 120 settlements.
Most residents who are staying say they will not be violent with troops. Some are trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy until the last moment.
About a thousand people showed up late yesterday for the championship game of the Gaza settlements' basketball league. Hometown fans were overjoyed when Neve Dekalim beat Netzer Hazani, 50-45, in a cliffhanger.
But authorities are worried some of the squatters might be more hostile. At the beachfront settlement of Shirat Hayam yesterday, teenagers living in a tent camp physically assaulted journalists who tried to enter the settlement from the beach. Shirat Hayam recently declared an independent ''Jewish Authority," a breakaway Jewish counterpart to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.
''We have made our declaration of independence to protect the rights of the Jewish people," Arieh Itzhaki, a retired military historian and a secular Jew, told reporters through a fence and a coil of barbed wire at the settlement's front gate yesterday at dawn, a pistol tucked into his belt.
About 130 families and 400 teenagers -- most of them squatters who have moved to Shirat Hayam in the last month -- supported the move, he said, and would resist an attempt to expel them from Gaza with any means short of ''extreme violence."
Shirat Hayam, which means ''Song of the Sea," was one of the settlements that Israeli soldiers did not attempt to enter in order to deliver eviction notices.
Outside of Gaza, about 1,000 opponents of the withdrawal marched toward the Kissufim crossing, hoping to make their way to the settlements last night. Authorities, who had declared Gaza a closed military zone, arrested about 100 of the marchers.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Anne Barnard and Thanassis Cambanis of the Globe staff contributed from Eshkol, Israel, and Shirat Hayam. Globe correspondent Sa'id Ghazali contributed from Gaza City.