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Seeing Grown Men and Seasoned Soldiers Cry

Times Staff Writers

The settlers were not the only ones crying.

Israeli soldiers also shed tears Wednesday as they forcibly removed Jewish settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip.

Troops clenched their teeth against pleas to ignore their military orders and endured verbal abuse as they carried settlers, sobbing and sometimes struggling, onto waiting buses.

“Seeing a grown man cry, that’s the problem,” said one young officer. “You know it’s not a game.”

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The withdrawal from Gaza pitted two iconic Israeli groups against each other -- settlers and soldiers. For settlers long used to government support, the forced evictions were a betrayal. For soldiers, the task of removing residents put them in the cross hairs of settler anger and took an emotional toll.

The army remains one of the pillars of Israeli society, venerated as are few of its institutions. Almost everyone completes at least 20 months of obligatory military service, a formative experience for Israelis. Since Israel’s founding in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the soldier has been an emblem of the “new Jew”: strong, self-sufficient and supremely prepared to defend the Jewish state.

But Wednesday, the tough soldiers were under public attack, berated by settlers and their supporters as traitors and even as Nazis.

“How can you take our community away from us?” a settler shouted at a team of soldiers. “You’re not my army!”

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At least 14,000 soldiers and police were deployed in the operation to clear out the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and to forcibly remove the thousands of residents who refused to leave voluntarily.

Teams of officers fanned out in Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in the main Gaza block of Gush Katif, and a handful of other communities. The soldiers had spent weeks training for this action, practicing drills that included being screamed at and accused of being the enemy.

But nothing could prepare them for actually uprooting Jews, under the intense glare of the international media, from land the settlers claim was given to them by God.

“It’s not easy coping with this,” said 2nd Lt. Sheri Willis, 21, who said she had wept numerous times in recent days as settlers began moving out under government order. “But we’re soldiers and we believe in this.”

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Willis stood outside a home in blistering heat where the Zemora family -- a couple and six children -- refused to open the door to soldiers. The team pried the door open and found the family sitting on the floor, praying. After about 10 minutes of discussion, the wife emerged from the house holding a baby and weeping, escorted by a female soldier. Some of the other children, including one in a stroller, were brought out by female officers.

The father, wearing a white prayer shawl, would not budge. Four male soldiers carried him out as he screamed, “Ay, ay ay,” moaning and writhing against their grip. A teenage boy, also carried out, shouted a prayer in Hebrew as officers carried him to a bus.

A freckle-faced 12-year-old also screamed at the soldiers: “You’re a coward!”

“It’s a very tough job,” 1st Lt. Assaf Asulyn said. Asulyn’s squad had just endured another verbal assault -- part plea, part harangue -- by an activist who shouted into their sweat-streaked faces.

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“The Palestinians will thank you! Four years of terror didn’t do the job! Way to go!” yelled the activist, whose shirt was torn in a traditional Jewish sign of mourning. He then changed tactics. “You’re so sweet, you’re the age of my children,” he told the young troops.

Asulyn was philosophical.

“They’re angry at the government and we’re just the messenger. So you don’t get angry, because you know it’s not personal,” he said.

The teams took pains to avoid provoking violent reactions. Soldiers would first surround a house, looking in the windows to see who was at home, then knock repeatedly before breaking in the door. Once inside, they looked for children and sought to have them removed first. Female officers were called in to escort women and children.

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Sometimes the soldiers got bogged down in lengthy negotiations.

In one case, a family of four sat on the floor with arms linked as the commander talked to the father, who cited his own military service in begging not to be evacuated. In the end, the family agreed to go, but the father asked that they be allowed to sing three songs first. The officer in charge agreed to two, and the family broke into song, one a traditional Jewish song, the other about the Holocaust.

Several waiting soldiers turned away, wiping tears.

Near the neighboring settlement of Shirat Hayam, a company commander who gave his name only as Erez, said he tried to put himself in the position of the settlers by imagining he was losing his home.

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“I won’t judge these people at this emotional moment,” he said. “Even though it’s hard, you tell yourself they’re not targeting you. And then you feel better afterward.”

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Special correspondent Vita Bekker in Shirat Hayam contributed to this report.


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