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Residents of Kfar Darom settlement have no intention of leaving

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip—Rabbis, anti-pullout campaigners and 400 stalwart Israelis such as Yaakov Goldberg laid final plans for a last stand as the sun set Tuesday, expecting the Israeli army to arrive at any time to try to force them to leave the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom.

Goldberg, a physics graduate student in Jerusalem and four-year member of this tight-knit, heavily guarded compound in the midst of Palestinian Gaza, continued to work in his yard and repair his irrigation lines.

The synagogue, built earlier this year, was full of men studying Jewish law. People continued to fold and put away laundry. Houses were cleaned and new gardens and play areas for kids were set up.

There were few outward indications that Kfar Darom was on the verge of being forcibly vacated and bulldozed as part of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, a move aimed at enhancing Israeli security.

"We live absolutely normal lives," Goldberg said, surrounded by his four young children. "Because we are guarded, I feel safe enough" living here.

"Normal" in Kfar Darom means 8-year-olds can tell whether bullets and mortar rounds are incoming or outgoing. Residents can form an organized militia in half a minute. To visit waving-distance neighbors requires leaving the Gaza Strip on a network of Israeli roads, driving 15 miles north to another checkpoint, then driving on Palestinian roads 15 miles south near the starting point.

But even as they tried to go about their daily business, the residents were getting ready for hundreds of soldiers to enter the compound and attempt to remove them from their homes.

They could come Wednesday morning. It could be a week or more. But residents here and in several other settlements said they weren't going anywhere.

"The army doesn't really know how to deal with people who want to stay in their homes," Goldberg said. "No one guarantees it for sure, but we believe that we will stay here."

Goldberg and other Kfar Darom residents had sent off for safekeeping small boxes of personal things, photo albums, marriage certificates, special signed books.

Some had moved their cars off the strip. One man left because he wasn't sure how he'd react when the soldiers arrived.

Families filled water bottles and froze them. Refrigerators were stocked. Phone trees to family members outside Gaza were compiled and would be administered from a remote site if the phone lines were cut.

And hundreds of settler supporters, including entire families and many young students from the West Bank, were living here in two tent cities, preparing to help resist the pullout.

"Everyone that is here is one more that can speak with a soldier to explain that this is very crazy, all this process, and it's forbidden to help," said Alex Ben Zekri, who pretended to be mentally ill last week to sneak past the checkpoint into Gaza.

Two of Israel's most respected rabbis decreed months ago that Jews must not expel Jews from Israeli land, inspiring many orthodox Jews to come to Gaza before the pullout. It's an expression of what's known as "mesirut nefesh," or self-sacrifice, and it includes everything from living in a tent for a month to protest the pullout to dying for a cause, Rabbi Moshe Katz said.

Katz, a teacher from Elon Moreh, a settlement near Nablus on the West Bank, said the resistance at Kfar Darom would be peaceful.

Kfar Darom residents met privately for more than two hours Tuesday and emerged from the meeting confident that their many guests would avoid violence or name-calling when soldiers arrive.

"We will tell them (soldiers) how evil their job is," Goldberg said. "We won't offer them coffee."

But family members and friends of the residents, especially the young people, want action. They got a taste Monday when two center-left members of Parliament arrived to see how the pullout was progressing and were kept at the gate until a delegation from the settlement council could be summoned. As the politicians were escorted through the gate, a teenager who gave his name as Yitzhak stuck a pin in one of their tires.

Two women from the council asked the youth to repair the tire.

Other young people said Tuesday that they'd behave as Kfar Darom residents asked.

Expecting soldiers anytime now, people moved from the tent cities into the settlements' buildings and prepared to barricade windows and doors Tuesday night. Barriers were placed on some roads. Families set ground rules with their children and guests about how they'd act when soldiers arrive.

"We will tell them what we expect them to do," Goldberg said. "They know that we can't guarantee that we'll stay here."

And then children ran for popsicles that American supporters had sent by the truckload.

Jewish settlers gave many reasons for living here.

They came for the hot, humid weather. They came because they believed in populating and inhabiting the Jewish state. They came because of the warmth of the families and religious spirit that permeated the area.

"In Israel, when a Jew loves his land, it's not like a Frenchman who lives in Paris," said Anat Mashilker, an eighth-grade teacher and mother of four, referring to the belief that God gave the land to the Jews. "If, God forbid, they come expel us, we must go. It's sure we'll come back."

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(Hoffman reports for the Contra Costa Times.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-SETTLEMENT

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