NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip – It was an especially festive Sabbath (search) in Roni Bakshi's home, with guests camping on his lawn and stuffed peppers cooking on the stove for the ritual Friday evening meal.
Across Gaza (search), Jewish settlers were observing a bittersweet last Sabbath, before their forcible removal by Israeli troops next week. There was the dread of being uprooted, the rush of making a last stand and the desperate hope for a miracle.
The Bakshis, a family of nine, have not packed their belongings, refusing to acknowledge their impending departure. "It's not the last Sabbath. There will be many more Sabbaths," said 42-year-old Roni Bakshi.
Saturday evening ushers in the holy day of Tisha B'Av, 24 hours of fasting to mourn the destruction of the biblical Jewish Temples in Jerusalem (search). The day has special meaning this year, Bakshi said.
"This year, we understand what the destruction of the Temples means, and this year it is greater because Jews are expelling Jews from their homes and jobs," he said.
Gaza settlers only have a few days left. At midnight Sunday, their presence in Gaza will become illegal. Starting early Monday, troops will go from home to home, knock on doors and tell settlers they must leave. After a two-day grace period, the forcible removal is set to begin early Wednesday.
Hundreds of the 8,500 Gaza settlers have already left, packing their belongings into trucks and moving into temporary homes in trailer parks in Israel. In the small enclave of Rafiah Yam, settler Rami Yaakov rolled up the Israeli flag that had been fluttering from his roof, before climbing into his pickup and driving off. In other communities, moving trucks rolled through quiet streets.
Israeli army officials expect that more than 50 percent of all settlers will have left by late Tuesday; those who miss the final deadline could lose up to a third of their compensation payments.
However, many settlers have chosen to stay, and they have been joined by more than 3,000 visitors, including young activists who have set up tent camps and say they will resist removal.
Bakshi, who lives in the largest settlement, Neve Dekalim, had about 30 guests, including family and friends, some of whom camped in his yard.
With the approach of the Sabbath at sundown Friday, the Bakshi family had set a long table, covered with white cloth, for a festive evening meal of stuffed peppers and Kubeh, a Middle Eastern meat dumpling. Bakshi's wife, Efrat, had baked the traditional Sabbath bread in a heart shape, rather than the usual rectangle, to express the family's love for their community.
Before the start of the Sabbath, the small grocery stores in Gaza settlements were packed with residents stocking up for the ritual evening meal. In Neve Dekalim, volunteers distributed shiny metal pots of kugel, a dessert popular among Jews of Eastern European descent.
Just a couple of miles away, on the Mediterranean beach, the settlement outpost of Shirat Hayam was crammed with visitors who were invited to Sabbath dinner by the veteran residents. Before the start of the Sabbath, the guests helped with house-cleaning chores and volunteered to baby-sit as women cooked dinner.
Some were still waiting for divine intervention to stop the pullout. "We don't feel sorrow or sadness," said Aviv Simchi, a teacher from the West Bank settlement of Beit El, who had moved to Shirat Hayam two months ago and was now hosting three families. "We expect that the Sabbath will bring a miracle," he said.
Farther to the north, in the secular settlement of Elei Sinai, about one-third of the more than 90 families have already left. Even many of those who decided to stay beyond the deadline were busy packing their belongings into containers so they would not be damaged during the pullout. The leader of the settlement, Sarita Maoz, 37, said that despite opposition to the pullout, most residents were also planning for the day after.
Jay Eizen, a father of six who immigrated from Philadelphia, said he cried when he packed. "I was in the United States and sent letters to senators, hoping maybe they could stop this, but I didn't succeed," he said.
A neighbor, Yaakov Lev, said many residents of Elei Sinai planned to spend Saturday on the nearby beach, to say farewell. On Friday, Lev cut and watered his lawn. "I will always remember my house as a beautiful place," he said.