Shlomi Tabach was trying to pry the bronze mezuzah off his front doorpost with pliers, but it wouldn't budge.
"Look at that. The mezuzah doesn't want to leave. It wants to stay in Gush Katif," said Tabach's mother-in-law, Yaffa Michaeli, referring to the main Jewish settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip, where the family had lived for 16 years -- until last week.
With one more yank, the mezuzah finally came off.
The Tabach family left the settlement of Gadid last week, ahead of the Israeli withdrawal. Settlers who hadn't evacuated as of Monday were given 48-hours notice to leave, on threat of eviction.
However, the Tabach family left a few days before the evacuation got under way, rising at dawn to pack final boxes with their toddler son's toys, taking down lace curtains and lighting fixtures. Their sand-swept front yard was crammed with furniture, plastic crates and boxes as they waited for the moving van.
Tabach, 30, and his wife, Ravit, 26, both accountants, have lived in a small one-story house in Gadid for two years.
Ravit Tabach was 10 when she moved to the settlement with her family from the southern Israeli town of Ofakim. Shlomi Tabach, who grew up secular in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, met Ravit during their accounting studies and followed her to Gaza.
By last Sunday, the Tabachs had moved into a mobile home in Nitzan, a temporary housing project off the highway leading from the Gaza Strip north to Tel Aviv. Nitzan was designed to absorb the bulk of those evacuated from Gush Katif.
With its rows of mobile homes planted on a huge plot, Nitzan looks a bit like one of the transit camps erected in the early days of Israel to absorb the massive flow of new immigrants. Unlike a transit camp, however, these mobile homes have parking spaces, air conditioning and a bit of space. Reflecting those amenities, they're not called caravans, the Israeli term for mobile homes, but caravillas.
At the Tabachs' new home, one enters a spacious kitchen with a small adjacent living room. A hallway leads to four comfortable bedrooms and two bathrooms. The windows, however, look directly into the rooms of the family next door.
Last Sunday, just before the formal evacuation began, Nitzan looked nearly deserted. Most of the expected evacuees hadn't arrived yet, staying behind in Gush Katif for the final showdown with soldiers coming to evict them. The Tabachs were among the few families who already had settled in.
"On the face of it, everything is all right," Shlomi Tabach said, "but our entire life is under a question mark. We don't know how many of our friends will join us here. Ravit's parents have moved to Ashdod, and we still don't know whether our one-and-a-half-year-old, Nevo, will have a kindergarten to go to."
It was getting darker, and Tabach turned on the sprinklers to water carpets of grass newly planted near the mobile home, a marked change from Gush Katif's greenery.
"We are willing to give up many things, as long as we have peace and quiet," Tabach said, "but it doesn't look like we will. I know the Arabs, and I know that their only wish is to see us evaporate away," and Israeli Prime Minister "Ariel Sharon helps them out. And for this, he will be doomed to eternal disgrace."
The younger generation's trauma, however, is marginal compared with that of their parents, the people who built Gush Katif a generation ago. Having finally settled down, with private homes, successful farms and the time to enjoy their children and grandchildren, they were forced to leave.
They find themselves in new neighborhoods, with an unhappy present and an uncertain future.
"The whole thing seems unreal to me. I don't believe I'm here," said Michaeli, Ravit Tabach's mother, referring to Ashdod. "I feel that in just a little while I'll go back to Gadid."
But the life that the Michaelis enjoyed in Gadid is no more.
"I used to hand the keys of my $40,000 car to my Palestinian worker to go and have it washed. I trusted him completely," said Yaffa Michaeli's husband, Salim, 55. "It was a different world."
Salim Michaeli spoke of Gadid as if he had just been exiled from the Garden of Eden, ignoring the frequent terrorist attacks that settlers endured during the five-year-old Palestinian intifada. Leaning back on the uncomfortable kitchen chair at his newly rented home in Ashdod, he stared at the world with weary eyes and sighed deeply.
"It was an empire," he said. "We have left an empire behind."
Their empire included a 2,500-square-foot, five-bedroom house on a half-acre plot; 15 acres of hothouses, where the Michaelis grew tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers; a 6,500-square-foot packing house; two trucks; a restaurant in the nearby settlement of Neveh Dekalim; and a crew of Palestinian labor.
Before the intifada began in September 2000, the Michaelis employed 33 Palestinians and 11 Thais. Even though that number had dwindled in the past five years, "when we handed out their last salaries on Friday, they cried," Salim Michaeli said.
The Michaelis rented the house in Ashdod for $1,200 a month, not wanting to cram into one of the narrow caravillas in Nitzan. Their new residence lies on a narrow, crowded street, where a neighbor's music can be heard blaring loudly throughout the area. Gone are the days of isolated homes near Gaza's expansive sand dunes.
One of the Michaelis' sons -- Dudu, 22 -- stayed behind in Gadid for the final confrontation with evacuating forces. Another son, Naor, 17, is staying with the Tabachs. Only Neriya, the Michaelis' 8-year-old, is currently with them in Ashdod.
Yaffa Michaeli, who operated the family restaurant and catering services in Neveh Dekalim, is thinking of opening a restaurant in Ashdod or its vicinity, though there is a lot of competition. But her husband Salim is less optimistic.
"My entire life project is collapsing, and I only receive $400,000 in compensation," he said. "I would need at least half of it to build a new home. And what about living expenses? Who will employ me at age 55?"
"We had an empire," he said again. But the Gush Katif empire has fallen.
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