In the villas and small, prefabricated homes along Shizaf Street live the government clerks and factory workers, police officers and religious counselors who have settled these sandy hilltops over the years, many at the Israeli government's request. Today, from the iron entrance gate to the padlocked community pool, there are signs of an impending exodus from this Jewish settlement.
Zeev Klein packs up the home on Shizaf Street where he has lived for 15 years. His apricot trees are shriveling for lack of water. A block down the street, a crane lifts potted palms from the Shitrit family's front yard, loading them onto a flatbed truck as a worker pulls red tiles from the roof. The Dadons have hired a lawyer to negotiate what the government owes them for leaving.
This settlement in the dunes of northern Gaza is dissolving a little more than three weeks before the Israeli army is scheduled to remove any of the 240 families who remain, as part of an operation known as disengagement. Here, as in other Gaza settlements where more than 8,000 people live, a realization has set in -- that months of prayers to be allowed to stay on the land might not be answered.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls the evacuation of Gaza settlements necessary because it is too difficult to protect a few thousand Israelis from attackers among the 1.3 million Palestinians surrounding them, he has places like Nissanit in mind.
During the uprising, or intifada, that began in September 2000, members of various Palestinian militias sent rockets and small-arms fire into the settlement, killing two people and wounding more than two dozen. Last Saturday, one person was wounded and 11 others were treated for shock when a pair of mortar shells smashed into a home in the early evening.
More than a dozen families have already left Nissanit, while others are scrambling to make arrangements for temporary housing and schools for their children.
"People did not really believe this was going to happen, and they were just kind of floating along," said Yakov Dadon, 32, a consultant on kosher kitchens who lives with his wife and two young sons on Shizaf Street. "Now even the extremists are beginning to internalize what is about to happen."
Nissanit is a mixed community -- some of its people came driven by religious faith that God gave this land to the Jewish people. Others are here for secular reasons. So far, 226 of the 240 families have notified the government that they intend to leave voluntarily, many filing paperwork only in the last two weeks. Israeli officials say that represents the highest percentage of any settlement in the strip.
Opposition to the government's plan remains strong in settlements to the south of here, which are dominated by people who came out of religious faith. In all the Gaza settlements, 400 families -- perhaps a quarter of the population -- as well as 38 businesses have declared their intention to leave.
The numbers have shot up since the Israeli army's swift eviction of anti-disengagement activists on June 30 from a beachside hotel south of here. Many settlers took that as proof of the government's determination. Israeli officials have begun predicting a large-scale departure from the settlements before Aug. 15, when soldiers will begin knocking on doors and asking residents to leave voluntarily. If they have not departed 48 hours later, the army will remove them by force.
Many of Nissanit's people had put off making post-evacuation plans, heeding the advice of settlement leaders who had cast cooperation with the government as a sign of weakening resolve. But in the past two weeks the settlement's administrative office has filled each day with couples wanting to know how to apply for government assistance that could amount to between $100,000 to $280,000 per family here.
"If I'd known this was really going to happen I'd have made arrangements six months ago," said Rachael Akoka, the harried settlement secretary, who is on the verge of losing her job and home after 11 years. As residents gathered in her cramped office for help one recent day, Akoka acknowledged that she had begun taking anti-anxiety medication to make it through the next few weeks.
"Now I'm smiling," Akoka, a mother of five, said with a laugh. "Everyone here is so mad they are just trying to go to sleep and forget what's going on."
Nissim Avinoam, the settlement's elected leader, is still hoping to somehow hold his town together.
As an Israeli soldier, he fought in the 1973 war and in the invasion of Lebanon nine years later. He arrived in Nissanit in 1984 when the government was encouraging Jewish settlement in the territories. With his wife, he moved into a trailer on a nearby hilltop where today an Israeli military base overlooks the gray warrens of Palestinian refugee camps to the west and a farming town near the settlement's southern border.
A burly man with fingers as thick as ballpark franks, Avinoam said he chose Nissanit because it was close to the sea. He commuted to his job as a policeman in Ashdod, 15 miles to the north, a trip many here still make each day. By living here, he and the five other original families were heeding the call of Sharon, who was a government minister at the time and the inspiration behind the push to settle Gaza as a strategic buffer against Egyptian invasion.
"He evacuated the settlements in the Sinai," said Avinoam, 55. "But I never thought he'd evacuate a place he built and encouraged."
Like many here, Avinoam traces his roots to North Africa, the wellspring of the Sephardic Jewish community that Sharon's Likud Party successfully courted in its rise to power. A loyal Likud member for decades, Avinoam voted against the evacuation in a nonbinding party referendum last year, as did a majority of party members.
After retiring a few years ago, he opened a small catering business that supplies lunches to factories in the nearby Erez industrial park and the local kindergarten. He said he intended to stay among his crates of onions and tomatoes until the army knocked on his door. Then he plans to leave peacefully, most likely for a caravilla, the government's term for the deluxe trailers being set up as temporary housing in the beachside community of Nitzanim north of here.
"I'm still saying to my people not to rush, that things can change," Avinoam said. "It saddens me to see our families leaving. It makes me feel like crying. . . . But I'm a religious person and I don't believe that everything is controlled by us."
In recent weeks, about 30 settler families from the West Bank have moved into a cluster of empty homes -- built during the intifada but never occupied -- at the end of Shizaf Street near the lemon-yellow walls of the community pool. The new arrivals, who represent an extreme wing of the religious settlers' movement, intend to resist the evacuation more forcefully than Nissanit residents have. Families here refer to them derisively as the "squatters."
They have opened a summer camp for the settlement children, who glide through quiet streets on in-line skates, wearing T-shirts bearing the orange of the anti-disengagement movement. But the leaders of Nissanit say the newcomers are acting on their own.
"I told myself at the time I moved in here that if someday they evacuate us, I will shake their hand and leave in peace," said Klein, 55, who works in a tool factory in the Erez industrial park. "My concern now is for my children and grandchildren."
The son of immigrants from Hungary and Romania who arrived around the time of Israel's birth in 1948, Klein built a comfortable middle-class life in Nissanit. He poured money into his two-story villa at the upscale end of Shizaf Street, and still describes it with the enthusiasm of a real estate agent. But it is nearly packed up. His lawn, like the once-lush community soccer field nearby, has faded to brown in the sun.
The Shitrits a few doors down intend to leave their home, now stuffed with cardboard boxes, in the next week. The house is large, and they have been there for 15 years. As a result, the family will likely receive $250,000 compensation from the government. In a nearby farming village, Zehava Shitrit, 51, has already rented a place with a yard large enough to accommodate her many potted palms, ferns and geraniums.
"We're moving on our own because we don't want to get caught up in the mayhem," Shitrit said. "It's sad to separate, but it's only temporary."
The settlement's fracturing does not surprise the Dadons, a deeply religious family that lives on the poor end of Shizaf Street in a tin-and-cement home that heats up like a kiln in the Gaza sun. They will receive far less compensation than many of their neighbors, and recently filed papers to join a lottery that will select who gets the prime temporary housing in Nitzanim.
"Not everyone is getting the same kind of money, so people are just going wherever they can right now," said Yakov Dadon, who has been told to expect a maximum of $150,000 for his house. "Many of us may only be able to live in an apartment."
Dadon bought his house five years ago when he married Meital, whom he met while supervising kosher kitchens in Ashdod. The family car is still festooned with orange ribbons, the trademark of the anti-disengagement movement here. But a few weeks ago he hired a lawyer after becoming frustrated with settlement leaders who had been informing residents to keep away from the government.
Now the government is the only hope of a soft landing for Dadon and many others here. "This community is not united at all," said Meital Dadon, 22. "It's going its separate ways."