Settlers Celebrate Last Passover in Gaza Strip

Under heavy army guard, families in this Jewish settlement gathered Saturday for the Passover (search) seder, or ritual meal, the last time they and thousands of other settlers are likely to celebrate the holiday in the Gaza Strip.

Some said they try not to think about the government's plan to remove them from their homes this summer, and focus instead on the holiday that commemorates the delivery of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt (search). Most Gaza settlers say they will put up at least passive resistance to the planned Gaza withdrawal, though some settler leaders have begun negotiating compensation deals with the government.

Anita Tucker, 59, a vegetable farmer in the Netzer Hazani (search) settlement, said she goes on with her life as if there is no pullout. "It's our way of dealing with it," said Tucker, as she prepared to host a seder for her five children and their families. Tucker immigrated to Israel from Brooklyn, New York in 1967, and settled in Netzer Hazani in southern Gaza almost a decade later.

At nightfall Saturday, army vehicles patrolled in the settlement of 500 people, including the outlying greenhouses and vegetable fields. The sound of singing drifted into the streets from homes where families gathered around the Passover table.

Gaza settlers hope thousands of Israelis will visit them during the weeklong holiday, traditionally a time of outings. Concerts, picnics and rallies were to be held in the Gaza settlements during Passover week as a show of support for the Gaza settlers. Organizers have collected tents, food and other gear to enable large numbers of people to stay through the withdrawal.

The forced evacuation of the 8,500 Gaza settlers was initially set to begin July 20, but Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has agreed to postpone the pullout until Aug. 15. The decision is expected to be affirmed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after Passover.

Government officials cited the settlers' religious sensibilities in seeking the delay — a religious mourning period ends Aug. 14 — but also appear to need more time to plan the withdrawal.

Polls indicate that a majority of Israelis support the planned pullout from Gaza and four West Bank settlements. Gaza is home to 1.3 million Palestinians, one of the world's most densely populated areas.

Passover celebrations this year coincide with a period of relative calm, after more than four years of fighting. Despite a marked drop in violence since a truce declaration in February, Israeli troops enforced a closure of the West Bank and Gaza, barring Palestinians from entering Israel. The closure is to last until Sunday night, and some 3,000 workers from Gaza were expected to return to jobs in Israel on Monday.

The seder commemorates the flight of the ancient Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Observant Jews refrain from bread products during the holiday, and instead eat matzah — an unleavened cracker — to illustrate how the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise as they fled.

Many secular Israelis left for vacations abroad, including some 11,000 who were expected to spend the holiday in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. In October 2004, three car bombs exploded at Sinai resorts, killing 34 people, including 11 Israelis.