Reflecting in the evening cool, Menachem Anaki realized he'd been waiting for the knock on his door for more than a decade.
Anaki, a stout, thickly bearded man, moved into his pretty, whitewashed home near the synagogue more than 20 years ago. Two of his four children were born here, and it is hard for him to imagine a nicer place to raise a family than amid Gaza's date palms and sea breezes. But when Israel signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993, placing parts of Gaza under Palestinian political control, Anaki had a feeling his days here were numbered.
Soldiers came Wednesday evening to tell him his time was up. His Hyundai was packed for the move, and boxes filled the living room, whose walls were covered with graffiti warning the arriving troops that "God is watching you." Uncharacteristically, he began to cry. So did his wife, Mary, a special education teacher who until that moment believed the knock might never come.
"Ever since Oslo, I knew they might kick us out," said Anaki, the groundskeeper of a nearby beach resort. "But when the moment came, I realized I was leaving my whole life. As realistic as you try to be, you can't stop your heart."
The day many in Gaza's largest Jewish settlement had dreaded for months began with the arrival of hundreds of Israeli troops dashing through the streets in the morning heat. At the end of it, dozens of soldiers splayed out on the brick sidewalk near the Anakis' doorstep, sleeping amid smoldering trash fires and the sounds of chanting from inside the synagogue.
The Shachar Battalion was greeted Wednesday morning by a cluster of teenage girls standing sentry on the roof of a house near the settlement's entrance. "Shame on you!" they shouted as the soldiers passed by. "Don't you dare!"
The battalion stretched out in columns, troops encircling their assigned blocks. Working from maps based on aerial photography and annotated with family information for each house, small groups of soldiers knocked gingerly on doors to see if anyone would leave voluntarily. Rabbis and social workers accompanied the units.
By midafternoon, military officials said 158 houses and public buildings, approximately a third of those in Neve Dekalim, had been abandoned.
But progress was slow for much of the morning. Fires burned in many intersections, blocking the tour buses being used to evacuate families.
The battalion worked along a row of double-wide duplexes set on sandy lots. Just after 9 a.m., a group of five soldiers knocked on the first door of the day, house No. 287. They were welcomed with shouts by two older women who answered it.
"You're exactly like you-know-who," one said, alluding to Nazi soldiers.
From across the street, several girls screamed, "You can't take her from her home."
The number of soldiers multiplied, and they prepared to enter. As they gathered, a woman in an orange anti-disengagement T-shirt set a plastic chair on the doorstep and began reading psalms to herself. After a few minutes, the soldiers retreated to the curb.
In the street, two young men sprinted toward the still-empty bus parked outside and pelted the windshield with a dozen eggs. Several soldiers chased them down. After grabbing one boy by the arm and putting him on the bus, a soldier turned away in anger, his face covered with spit.
"It's very difficult for all of us, on both sides," said Capt. Rachel Zinger, 24, whose squad of female soldiers was deployed to doorsteps throughout the morning. "But we're trying our best."
Down the street, the Ben-Simon family -- four young children and a mother struggling with a newborn -- posed for a final group picture on the lawn in front of their house. A stroller blocked the path to the door where soldiers milled around waiting for the family to emerge.
When it did, the mother kneeled to the ground and kissed it. Then she boarded the bus. "Look how many soldiers it took to remove our family of four children," she said.
The operation picked up pace just before noon, and soldiers began kicking down doors closed to them only hours before.
A dozen soldiers flattened the door of house No. 285, and Zinger's squad helped evacuate a half-dozen teenage girls inside. Soldiers were forced to carry them out spread-eagle. One of them sang, "God will save us, God will save us," as she was placed on a bus. She opened a tinted window and continued chanting as a group of sobbing girls filed onto the bus. They carried backpacks. One wore fluffy slippers resembling teddy bears.
"Just put your head down, cry, then get up," one officer counseled a female soldier as she wept quietly on sidewalk. The officer, who declined to give his name, poured cool water over her head and neck, and another female soldier crouched down to embrace her.
Maj. David Kelner, whiskered and ragged, worked with his platoon clearing houses well into the evening. It was quiet, patient work, like nothing he'd ever done. No guns or bombs, but unusual things, he said, as he watched two of his men carry a car seat with an infant strapped inside.
"The day was very tough," said Kelner, 39. "We say reality is always more than anything you imagine it might be. But today was about how I'd imagined."