Israeli soldiers moved from house to house early Wednesday in an emotional final attempt to compel anguished residents of this Jewish settlement to leave their homes voluntarily after a grace period expired.
In long columns, soldiers marched into Neve Dekalim's quiet streets a few hours before the midnight deadline for all Israelis inside the Gaza Strip to leave. The troops were shadowed along the way by angry groups of young men and women, many of them settlers from the West Bank who had come here in recent weeks to strengthen resistance to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's order to evacuate Gaza's 21 Jewish settlements.
Working with maps and flashlights here in the strip's largest settlement, army officers went door to door asking families if they intended to leave their homes. The answer, more often than not, was no.
Shortly after sunrise, Israeli police began moving through this settlement's front gate, and columns of Army troops took up positions around its perimeter, preparing to move inside to begin removing settlers by force.
Every front lawn became a stage, illuminated by streetlights and open windows revealing that very few residents had packed up their belongings. When residents were called on to gather in the community's largest synagogue in the hours after the deadline to avoid arrest, only a fraction appeared to do so.
Groups of young women read psalms as soldiers approached house No. 339 on one nameless street. A few doors down, Chaim Bachar, a bearded farmer perspiring in the evening heat, warned groups of soldiers handpicked for the unusual assignment of removing Jews from their homes that they would always regret participating in this operation.
"We won't forgive and we won't forget," Bachar, his fist waving, shouted at the soldiers, some of whom wept openly over the course of the emotional few hours. "What will you tell your children, where you were this night? What will you tell your wife? That you were expelling Jews from their homes?"
The confrontations in the pre-dawn darkness marked the start of the operation's decisive and most challenging phase. Israeli troops must now move against a strident, well-organized resistance confident that it may still be able to force the government to cancel the withdrawal.
Israeli officials said Tuesday night that more than 800 of the Gaza settlements' roughly 1,500 families remained in their fortified communities, built on land envisioned as part of a future Palestinian state. Of the 21 settlements, only the three in the north, whose residents moved there largely for economic reasons, have emptied on their own.
In a later stage, soldiers will also evacuate four small Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank. Two of those communities have already been abandoned.
The number of settlers remaining in Gaza did not include the thousands of their mostly young West Bank counterparts who came to block the withdrawal from land occupied since the 1967 Middle East war -- territory that many Jews believe was promised to them by God. Israel's politically powerful settlers movement is also hoping to show Sharon, once a champion of the cause, that no more withdrawals should follow.
Israeli police say the fervor of the West Bank settlers, some of whom have resorted to vandalism and low-grade sabotage in demonstrations, has frightened many residents into defying eviction orders.
About 50 anti-disengagement activists were arrested here early Tuesday, and several hundred West Bank settlers were detained while attempting to sneak into the Gaza Strip.
"We called moving companies, and some said they were too scared to come here. Another company said they are booked," said Michele Maimon, a mother of three who has lived here for 13 years. "So what are we supposed to do now? We have nowhere to go. We are refugees now."
Sharon has said leaving Gaza, where 8,500 Jewish settlers have lived amid 1.3 million Palestinians, will strengthen Israel's security and its Jewish majority. But those who left the strip in the hours before the midnight deadline did so reluctantly, casting off homes and history to relocate in villages of deluxe trailers set up by the government.
With a copy machine and a refrigerator strapped into his truck, Amnon Ditur passed through the Kissufim crossing in southern Gaza at midday Tuesday, leaving his home of 28 years in Ganei Tal for a kibbutz north of the strip.
Ditur said "the government abandoned its citizens in Gush Katif," referring to the largest bloc of settlements in Gaza. Later in the day, the mostly elderly residents of his community planned a farewell ceremony and a prayer service, but nothing more.
"There will be no violence," said Ditur, 58, whose teenage son sat next to him. "We will leave with honor and dignity."
Across the Gaza border in Israel, the Atias family watched the day's events from their new home in Nitzan, a government-built community where 351 Gaza families will be relocated. Ben and Ronit Atias are teachers with four children, ranging in age from 6 to 20, and they arrived Sunday evening before the government closed the strip.
Slowly, they have begun settling into their four-bedroom caravilla, as the trailers are known. Boxes are stacked high across the rooms. But the computer is already hooked up in the boys' room and remained turned on for much of the day.
"I believe it will be good here, God willing," Ronit Atias, 43, said as she unloaded hangers from a cardboard box.
Her daughters watched the television news beam back images of the place where they had lived for 16 years.
"Some of the infiltrators are okay," said Hila Atias, 20, referring to the West Bank arrivals. "On the other hand, many feel like they are in a summer camp. They come to meet boys and girls. We're the ones who let them in, but the feeling is that they took over."
Just after dusk, columns of Israeli military vehicles, tour buses packed with soldiers, and trailers carrying horses used by anti-riot units moved along the road into the settlements.
More than 40,000 soldiers are involved in the developing military operation, the most experienced of whom will be the ones on settlers' doorsteps. Water cannons were deployed in and around settlements where resistance was heaviest.
"We need to decide on limits, not to fight with soldiers or even call them names," said Nissan Slomiansky, a member of Israel's parliament opposed to the evacuation, who visited Neve Dekalim on Tuesday afternoon in a show of solidarity. "We will all have to live together again."
Along one street here, signs of both opposition and acceptance were visible as soldiers knocking on doors were shadowed by shouting residents imploring them to leave. A tall officer leading one team ducked beneath a wind chime and knocked on a worn wooden door. From a nearby window, the owner, his graying hair covered by a knit skullcap, began shouting.
A block away, soldiers helped pack up a house, loading dining room chairs, an electric fan and a boiler into a Shimon Movers truck. Another house nearby, lights blazing, was already empty.
The volume rose and fell in the streets, and just after midnight a group of teenagers began strumming guitars and beating drums in a slow march through the settlement. Their clapping and singing echoed into the morning hours.
"Up to now, what we've learned and seen is there are a lot of people willing to leave," said Maj. Dov Godinger of the Shachar Battalion, which will be working inside this settlement over the next few days. "There are people who are foreigners, let's say, that have stopped them from doing so. What we can expect is a lot of crying, attempts to make us feel very bad about this, but there will not be any violent acts."
Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Nitzan and Ian Deitch in Neve Dekalim contributed to this report.