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Some settlers have begun pullout from Gaza Strip

NITZAN, Israel—Israel's contentious pullout from the occupied Gaza Strip isn't slated to officially begin for another two weeks, but a quiet exodus of settlers has already begun.

While hundreds of families vow to fight for their homes, others are loading moving trucks, wiping away tears and waving farewell to neighbors before taking one last look at houses that will be reduced to rubble within weeks.

On Sunday, Israeli officials handed over keys to the first families moving into the largest temporary neighborhood hastily erected for the settlers—and many more are expected to follow.

So far, about half of 1,700 families living in the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements scheduled for demolition have told the government that they plan to leave peacefully.

"Now we begin a new life," said Ety Ben Dahan, a 39-year-old Gaza Strip settler who became the first to get keys to a new house in this community about 15 miles north of the Gaza Strip.

For 10 years, Ben Dahan and her family lived in Nissanit, an Israeli settlement built just inside the Gaza Strip, a coastal region packed with 1.3 million Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation.

Of the 25 settlements slated for closure as part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategic plan to increase his nation's security, Nissanit has proved to be one of the most cooperative. Almost all of the 250 families have opted to accept government compensation and find new places to live without putting up a fight.

On Sunday, Ben Dahan and her husband set out on a house-hunting trip to Nitzan, a neighborhood of 350 pre-fabricated homes meant to serve as temporary housing for displaced settlers.

After a quick tour, the couple picked 5 Eagle Street, a four-bedroom, two-bath house with a small strip of grass set on a rise overlooking a nearby highway. It's about half the size of their old settlement home, but it's the biggest a family of six can get in Nitzan under the government plan.

Ben Dahan said she loved the small town feel of Nissanit. But all that changed last October when a homemade Palestinian rocket sailed into their community and knocked two of her six children off their feet as they walked to synagogue.

"The children are afraid," said Ben Dahan's husband, Yosef, before he glued their mezuzah—a traditional Jewish symbol of protection—to the frame of their new front door. "They can't live there any more."

While Ety Ben Dahan isn't sure if her old job as a secretary at a settlement construction company will still be there next month and their children will have to travel an hour to school, she said she is willing to give up her old life if it will help bring an end to decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I hope there will be peace," she said.

The couple's old settlement, one of the more secular in Gaza, is expected to be among the first to be shut down by Israeli soldiers and police when Israel launches its plan to clear 9,000 Israelis from the occupied territories and demolish all their homes.

Because so many Nissanit families have already made plans to leave, the process is expected to go fairly smoothly before Israel turns to the more difficult and entrenched settlements along the southern Gaza Strip coast.

But not all the residents of Nissanit are as philosophical as Ety Ben Dahan about the impending changes.

"We're starting over again—just like a newborn baby," said Pnina Rotenberg, who choked back tears as she stood amid hundreds of boxes backed to the ceiling of her Nissanit home. "We feel like we're going backwards."

When Rotenberg moved to the settlement a dozen years ago, she said she didn't realize it was built inside territory captured by Israelis in the 1967 Six Day War.

She and her husband built their life and raised their two children in Nissanit. And they're not happy about being forced to leave now.

"Maybe things will be better, but it's hard for me to believe," she said.

Still, the Rotenbergs are packing up and moving out, just like their neighbors. Across the street, the Ben Hamo family has stripped their home of anything of value and loaded it onto a teetering moving truck bound for northern Israel.

The family has taken everything—toilets, light switches, windows, even the front door—and packed it up or sold it off.

"We loved this place," said Sigal Ben Hamo, a 35-year-old mother of three as she stood amid the rubble of their home one last time. "But the last five years it was impossible to live here."

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

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

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