NETZARIM, Gaza Strip -- After the final prayer service inside a Gaza synagogue, the Israeli military evacuated the last of the Jewish settlements here Monday as hundreds of residents poured into streets and moved slowly through the neighborhood under a blazing sun, shuffling, chanting and carrying aloft ornate Torah scrolls and a large menorah that once stood on the synagogue's roof.
Israeli troops encountered no resistance as they guided the settlement's roughly 120 families onto tour buses for a trip to Jerusalem, where they intended to pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.
The members of the last community to leave Gaza will live temporarily in a college dormitory in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
"I am not desolate, I am not without hope," said Shlomit Ziv, 35, a middle school teacher who had been rearing eight children here. "The eternal people, the Jewish people, have gone through very, very bad times. But we're here now with a state, a beautiful state that sometimes makes mistakes."
West Bank next
Netzarim's evacuation concluded the most difficult phase of Israel's withdrawal from 21 Gaza settlements. Next comes the West Bank, where four communities will be evacuated beginning today. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Middle East war.
Speaking to reporters, Maj. Dan Harel, head of Israel's Southern Command, said: "Right now there are no Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. The only Israeli citizens are the security forces."
The West Bank operation will be far smaller in scope. But, unlike in Gaza, there will be few barricades preventing Palestinians and settlers from clashing. The land itself also holds far deeper religious meaning to Jews than does Gaza.
The Gaza operation progressed swiftly after its first day, and for the most part peacefully. Israeli soldiers will likely remain inside the settlements for another five weeks, dismantling houses, military installations and other remnants of a nearly four-decade presence. The Palestinian Authority will then take control of the land, about 20 percent of Gaza's territory.
The withdrawal brought into sharp focus the deep ideological differences between Israel's national religious movement, whose adherents believe settling the territories is a religious imperative, and more secular political parties that have come to view Israel's presence there as a threat to security and the viability of its Jewish majority.
Officials said 1,500 Israelis, most of them from the West Bank, sneaked into Gaza in recent weeks to serve as foot soldiers of the resistance. In the coming days, Israeli soldiers intend to round up anyone who may be hiding inside the evacuated settlements.
A community of comfortable stucco homes along suburban-style streets, Netzarim was the most isolated Jewish settlement in Gaza, where more than 8,500 settlers have lived over the years amid 1.3 million Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs committee in April 2002 that "the fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv," suggesting the survival of the tiny settlement was as important to Israel's future as its largest metropolis.
Decision to leave
But Sharon's decision to leave Netzarim, as well as the rest of Gaza, underscored the toll that the nearly five-year-old Palestinian uprising has exacted on Israeli security forces. It is also a central part of Sharon's push to begin defining more defensible national borders without negotiating the terms with the Palestinians.
Fortified bunkers painted in pastel playground murals dot the settlement complex, which was draped Monday with banners reading "Netzarim Forever" in English and Hebrew.
But Israeli officers said defending Netzarim required a battalion of troops, or 450 soldiers, for a community whose population numbers only slightly more than that. At least 17 soldiers have died while assigned to protect the settlement in recent years, Israeli military officials said, and memorials to them appear in the numerous grassy parks and playgrounds.
"They have needed so many troops to surround them, to shelter them for a long time," said Hagai Dotan, the police official in charge of the evacuation here.