Atzmona Falls Like a House of Cards

ATZMONA - For a moment, it looks like a garden party for the brass on the lawn across from Atzmona's synagogue. Half of the Israel Defense Forces' General Command seems to be there - from the commander of the navy to the head of Army Intelligence - as well as two retired generals. Military reporters schmooze with their comrade-heroes, the generals; officers embrace settlers - one family, one people, as the saying goes.

A stranger would have a hard time believing that this was the evacuation of one of Gush Katif's most hardcore settlements. But even the wealthy, established Atzmona fell unconditionally yesterday, with no violence, nearly bringing to a close the Gaza evacuation that was preceded by so much trepidation.

On the edges of the "party," settlers who are about to be evacuated milled around, heads bowed, in mourning, most of them showing restraint, but a few pulling out the old shtick: a Holocaust survivor in a wheelchair being paraded back and forth for the journalists, a man holding out his newborn infant, a woman wearing a yellow star, and the interminable talk about love.

"We love you and hate your actions," says one talented standup comic hoarsely, his baby in his arms, appealing to the soldiers, police officers and media. "How can I send her brother to this army in another 20 years," he wails, pointing to his son.

"Were you born in Ethiopia?," he asks a Border Police officer. "Why did you immigrate to Israel?" Then he turned to a Russian-born soldier, telling his audience: "He's not to blame; he doesn't know what Eretz Israel is."

The comedian spies a Border Police officer, Tomer Salem, already on the verge of tears, and embraces him. "I love you, Tomer," he says. The officer and the evacuee hug for several minutes until the former's commander breaks up the embarrassing scene, but not before the settler urges the policeman to "go to the Arabs and really give it to them, not us."

"Do you get that? An Arab is going to be sleeping in my house," yells a female settler at a female soldier.

A few tears, a few threats, but Atzmona is eventually evacuated, falling like a house of cards. Yesterday the sun rose on an Atzmona of strong blues and grays. Sprinklers watered the lawn near the iron gate for the last time. A settler hung up laundry, whether as a sign of protest or because the towels really were damp.

A trailer filled with household goods, including potted plants and children's bicycles, stands hitched to a shiny 2005 Land Rover Discovery, ready to move. The siren tower was dismantled even before the first suitcase was loaded onto one of the buses; everyone knew that even Atzmona had collapsed.

The scenes are familiar by now: hundreds of soldiers and police officers marching silently, dozens of journalists, a handful of settlers. A settler points a megaphone toward the crowded paths. "The forces that came to expel us from the inheritance of our forefathers are standing at the gate," he cries before breaking into tears.

"I will beat the crap out of you, you better not mess with me," screams a small boy from the Harush family at a group of bewildered soldiers near a large house. At its entrance, the residents erected "the cemetery of the oppressors of Israel," cardboard gravestones for Haman, Antiochus, Hitler and Arafat - but not Sharon, of course.

Sadness, pain and tears mixed with more than a little racism in Atzmona: one resident approaches the brigade commander, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, and requests in a whisper that only a Jewish officer, "God forbid a non-Jew," be allowed to evacuate him from his home. Kochavi does not respond. Atzmona's residents never made such demands when Druze and Bedouin soldiers and officers guarded them. But today, everything is revealed and everything is permitted.

Meanwhile, at Morag, workers hired by the Defense Ministry dismantle the synagogue, saving every bolt and beam in accordance with the policy regarding synagogues in the communities being evacuated.