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Family reluctantly abandons home in settlement of Kfar Darom

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip—A year and a half of ignored deadlines, loud protests and international attention didn't soften the blow when Israeli army commander Roi Malchi knocked on the door four times.

"You can enter, we are not scared," said Yaakov Goldberg, a father of four and a resident of this tight-knit stronghold of religious Zionism in the midst of the Gaza Strip.

Three soldiers led by Malchi entered the cramped doublewide mobile home, glum expressions on their faces.

"I know it's hard for you," Malchi said. "Take a half an hour and come get on the bus."

The soldiers came for Goldberg and his family on Thursday morning, the second day of a massive operation to close all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip in advance of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the planned transfer of limited control to the Palestinian Authority.

It's a move that Goldberg and his neighbors on Kfar Darom fervently believed would never happen.

"We are going to be here till the last minute," Goldberg's wife, Leah, said before Malchi knocked on the door. "We don't have to feel bad because we are doing the will of God."

The half-hour deadline turned into hours for the Goldbergs and other residents who spent the morning negotiating with the soldiers and the government office set up to handle the pullout.

Many said they needed to prepare lunch. Many said they needed time to gather their children's things. Many winked at each other and said they'd still be there on the coming Sabbath.

And as a full moon rose over Gaza Thursday evening, Goldberg and his extended family were still at home, stalling the soldiers, waiting for a brother-in-law's truck to come and get their things.

Malchi waited patiently in the shade outside the house all afternoon. He said the settlers' final stand was "quixotic" and that it was their egos that kept them from applying for government resettlement aid and packing their bags in advance.

"I don't want to get to a situation where we have to take you and the kids out by force," Malchi told Goldberg.

By late afternoon Thursday, a convoy of buses had hauled off the majority of Kfar Darom's 400 residents and hundreds of the protesters who'd gathered there during the past month. A crane hoisted police and soldiers to the roof of the community synagogue where several hundred Yeshiva students were barricaded.

But as the drama unfolded in the settlement's central square, and soldiers carried distraught residents from some homes and forced them onto buses, many longtime residents quietly packed.

The Goldberg's four children picked their favorite dolls and books to take. A suitcase had been packed the night before, but other clothes, cassette tapes and tools were loaded into boxes that the army provided.

The Goldberg's guests, family and friends, helped them pack.

They briefly donned orange Jewish stars, like the yellow ones that Jews in Nazi Germany were forced to wear.

"It is not to recall the Holocaust, it is to recall all of the expulsions of the Jews," said Alex Ben Zekri, a friend who came to the settlement a week ago to help. "I am part of the history of the Jewish people."

But Ben Zekri then spoke to a neighbor and agreed to remove the stars. It wasn't the kind of symbolism the settlers sought.

Other symbolic gestures were apparent: The Goldberg family sat around their kitchen table eating a final, joyous meal of chicken and potatoes. The screams and sobs of neighbors dragged from their homes by their own soldiers penetrated the thin walls. Graffiti scrawled on the walls and floors declared, "Jew does not expel Jew" and "Soldier, policeman, I love you."

The settlers pleaded with soldiers to disobey the orders, not to give Israeli land that they had fought for, that neighbors had died defending, that they said they'd been promised in the Bible, back to "the Arabs."

The young soldiers and police officers replied that leaving Gaza would make Israel more secure. They exchanged names with the settlers and talked about their common military service. They shed tears.

"Every morning you are going to see my face," Yaakov Goldberg told the soldiers. "Your grandchildren will see this and say, grandfather, why were you there."

His son, 7-year-old Yehuda, tried to lock the soldiers out and repeatedly asked if the Arabs were going to get his mountain bike.

"Yehuda, what remains will not go to the Arabs, I told you," Goldberg told his eldest child.

Goldberg was still waiting for the truck late Thursday, but he said he'd leave after a brief ceremony at the synagogue.

"We still don't know if we will go to my parents in Jerusalem or to the hotel," he said.

Late at night, he got into his car to drive out of the Gaza Strip.

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(Hoffman reports for the Contra Costa Times)

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

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