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For Gaza Settler, ‘the Miracle’ Never Came

Times Staff Writer

Yuval Matzliach lighted a Marlboro and pictured the miracle to come: three days of nonstop sunlight, maybe the coming of the Messiah. But for sure, it would put an end to this awful plan to take away his home and community.

“The miracle will come,” he said, waving away any doubts as he might disperse the wisp of smoke snaking from his cigarette. “I’m sure of this.”

He had been doing this a lot in the final days before the deadline for Jewish settlers to evacuate the Gaza Strip, holding fast to the certainty of a true believer while stress-smoking like a card player down to a short pile of chips. In spite of his confident talk, Matzliach acknowledged that the worries tumbling around in his head were making it hard to sleep.

Matzliach had spent all but three of his 30 years in Netzer Hazani. His parents and siblings were here.

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His French-born wife, Karine, 31, was annoyed with him, and it showed. She didn’t share his lifelong attachment to the place, and she wanted to start packing, thinking about the next step for them and their three daughters, ages 18 months, 3 1/2 and 5. But her husband kept the faith. And he lighted another cigarette, expressing surprise again over how much he was smoking.

In the days ahead, the Matzliach household would become a caldron of anxiety, conflicting emotions, occasional friction and wrenching decision making. Although images of settlers’ sometimes theatrical efforts to prevent the pullout would be seen around the world, less visible were the personal trials of families agonizing over whether and how long to resist.

Saturday, Aug. 13

The holiday Tisha B’Av, capping a three-week mourning period, commemorates the destruction of the first and second Jewish temples. Beginning at sundown and lasting until the following evening, it is a day of fasting and solemnity for the devout. This year, it comes as Jewish settlers face what they consider to be another historical wrong. The government has set the following night, Sunday, as the deadline for settlers to leave Gaza. Forty-eight hours later it will start to evict them.

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But Yuval Matzliach receives visitors in a jolly mood. Pudgy, with black hair and a beard thickened from not shaving in observance of the three-week holiday, he launches into a diatribe against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the withdrawal plan.

For Matzliach, who came to Netzer Hazani as a small child when the community consisted of 30 or so houses scattered over the sand, exiting Gaza is a baffling surrender to Palestinian violence. Frequent mortar and rocket attacks have targeted Netzer Hazani and its 90 families since 2000, including at least 10 that struck near the Matzliach home. None of them caused damage or injuries.

Matzliach says God promised this land to Jews. It is also his personal Garden of Eden, where he grew up riding horses, playing at the nearby beach and learning every sandy recess of the Gush Katif settlement block.

As an adult, Matzliach seldom strays far from the couple’s compact home, an air-conditioned stucco house with two bedrooms, a patch of scratchy grass and a covered porch that he built in three days. He works in the adjacent settlement, Katif, overseeing maintenance at a dairy. He says that if the evacuation proceeds, his duties will enable him to stay for a few more weeks, until the cows are moved to a farm in Israel.

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To force residents out is evil, he argues in earnest but ragged English. “It is something you can’t to understand,” he will say repeatedly in the coming days.

He says he is sure the miracle will occur tomorrow.

Sunday, Aug. 14

Any apprehension over the impending midnight deadline is muted by the quiet of a day of fasting. There are no meetings and little talk of the pullout.

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Karine Matzliach prepares handmade miniature pizzas, salad and pastries for breaking the fast. Her husband drives to three neighboring settlements in search of cigarettes but finds them sold out. Store shelves are beginning to empty in anticipation of the evacuation. Along with moving vans and cargo containers, it is a sign that growing numbers of the settlers are resigned to leaving.

Karine has a stack of folded boxes waiting next to the house. She is nervous because they haven’t started packing yet, but so far she is deferring to Yuval. The idea of leaving upsets her too, but as an immigrant who grew up in Nice and Paris, she can more easily envision a life somewhere else.

When she moved to Netzer Hazani after marrying Yuval in 1999, she recalled thinking, “I’m not going to stay here for too long.”

Slim and stylish, with a wardrobe that includes fashionable wide-legged pants, she departs from the usual picture of female settlers in head scarves and long skirts.

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Because the couple have not arranged replacement housing through the government, she worries that the family could end up in temporary housing. The idea of being stuffed into a hotel room with three children makes her shudder.

At night, with the deadline approaching, her husband’s parents host a front-yard gathering that serves as a pep rally for residents who plan to defy the order.

Matzliach’s father, Yosef, plays guitar and leads the crowd through a repertoire of Israeli classics. The sing-along is punctuated by back-to-back explosions, probably a mortar round hitting somewhere in Netzer Hazani. The members of the crowd quickly recover. They belt out, “We’re not going to stop singing!”

Yuval Matzliach is showing more signs of worry. There has been no miracle, and residents have been summoned to the settlement’s front gate early in the morning to keep soldiers from delivering eviction notices.

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As the singing continues outdoors, he sits inside watching news on television. The army has permanently closed the main crossing that connects the Gush Katif block with Israel. Matz liach stares ahead, smoking. On his lap are two packs of cigarettes.

Monday, Aug. 15

Yuval and Karine join the rally inside the front gate, which is festooned with protest signs.

Dozens of men and teenage boys pray en masse. About 250 people have formed a thick human wall. Matzliach helps hang a broad fabric screen to give the protesters shade, but then slumps on a chair near the gate, looking drawn and forlorn.

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The roadblock forces the convoy of buses carrying soldiers to turn around, prompting cheers from the crowd, and more prayers. The turn of events brightens Matzliach’s mood, and he begins to talk again of a miracle. “I hope they see we are not chickens,” he says.

He says he can be hotheaded and he worries about what he might do if soldiers lay hands on his wife and daughters.

“I believe in God,” he says finally. But doubt edges in again. If he must leave, Matzliach says, it would be nice to make a final trip to say goodbye to the sea.

To add to his worries, his father has taken ill and left the settlement. And his brother, a soldier who opposes the pullout, has gone AWOL, refusing to take part.

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Tuesday, Aug. 16

Karine Matzliach is torn. After midnight, authorities can begin removing her family by force. Their belongings would be packed by contractors and stored indefinitely. She would like to pack and has two friends from Israel who would help. But she fears it would hurt her husband.

“It’s going to break him.”

She has begun to play in her mind what the evacuation will look like. “If we go, I’m not going to fight,” she says. “I’ll take my daughters and get on the bus.”

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More worrisome is where they will end up. Karine has warned the oldest girl, Emuna, that her parents might be upset and that the family might have to stay in a hotel. She says Emuna likes that idea.

Across the street, a family loads up and leaves, and a cargo container is delivered on the next street.

Yuval and Karine disappear for most of the afternoon. When they return, they sit at a plastic picnic table and announce that they have made a decision.

Karine wears sunglasses and looks as though she has been crying.

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Yuval is solemn. He says that Karine will pack and that she and the girls will leave before midnight. He explains that the decision is hers.

“I think all that is in the house -- it’s nothing. But it’s not to my wife. I can’t see her cry and I can’t see a soldier touch my wife,” he says. “We don’t have nothing to do now -- only to pray.”

Soon, Karine Matzliach and her two friends begin to assemble the boxes and fill them. Karine starts with the girls’ room, her favorite. It is decorated with Winnie the Pooh on the walls, and a colorful fish mobile hangs from the light. On the shelf stands an action figure: a soldier holding an Israeli flag.

Yuval is defeated and floats the idea of leaving the country. “When this government changes, when the evil go, maybe we come back,” he says.

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He says he doubts the couple will get the estimated $180,000 in compensation they are due.

Just before midnight, they buckle the children into the car. Their belongings are only partially packed, but one of the friends will drive Karine and the girls to Raanana, near Tel Aviv. Matzliach moves around the vehicle, kissing each child.

He and his wife embrace and kiss, and she gets in. As the car pulls away, the second friend splashes a cup of water behind for good luck. Matzliach returns to the picnic table and lights a cigarette.

Too bad she will miss the Messiah, he says, and then goes inside to watch more news.

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Epilogue

By Thursday, helpers had boxed up most of the rest of the family’s belongings. The army came to Netzer Hazani that day and removed its residents, including Matzliach’s mother, who torched her home to keep it from falling into Palestinian hands. He cried at the sight.

Soldiers came to his house too, but they determined that he had permission to stay.

Friday morning, Matzliach packed the final items and headed for northern Israel, where his wife and children had joined some of his relatives. He planned to stay for the weekend and return home Monday.

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He would be the last remaining resident of Netzer Hazani.

Times special correspondent Ilan Mizrahi contributed to this report.


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