AL-MAWASI, Gaza Strip – As soldiers chased down a group of protesters outside a Jewish settlement Wednesday and hauled them away in a bus, Abu Salah and his family watched and smiled.
Israel's plan to remove its civilians and soldiers from the Gaza Strip (search) is the fulfillment of a long-held dream for these Palestinians, whose village is just a few yards from the Shirat Hayam (search) settlement entrance.
"We knew this day would come. When, we didn't know, but we knew it would come," said Abu Salah, a 38-year-old cafe owner.
He and his wife, their five children, his brother and assorted nieces and nephews stood drinking tea and soft drinks during the Gaza pullout, merry spectators to a scene many Israelis consider a tragedy.
Other Palestinian families sat on plastic furniture in the shade, happily watching Israeli soldiers come and go from the settlement in preparation for its evacuation.
Asked what he thought about what he was seeing, Abu Salah gave a thumbs-up.
Residents in the Palestinian town of Rafah (search), on the edge of the Morag settlement (search), also looked on with excitement as Israeli soldiers loaded settlers onto buses and drove them away.
During the past five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, there were frequent exchanges of fire between soldiers guarding Morag and Palestinian gunmen in Rafah. Civilians were often caught in the crossfire.
"Tonight I will sleep at ease. No more fear. No more shooting. Just a good night's rest," said Raafat Attar, 21, who lives a few hundred yards from the settlement.
Just two months ago, his car was hit by army fire from a watchtower as he drove home. The water tank on the roof of his house is full of bullet holes.
The Israeli withdrawal also means Attar can finally go to the Mediterranean. Until now, beach access had been blocked by the settlements.
"The first place I'm going when they [the Israelis] get out is the beach to have a barbecue, relax, and take in the sea air," said Attar.
Back in al-Mawasi, the mood was joyous among the Abu Salah family when a busload of soldiers drove up to a razorwire-and-brick barricade erected by protesters to block the army.
A half-dozen teenagers, nearly all from the West Bank and Israel who came to support the Gaza settlers against their eviction, charged toward the soldiers in anger.
The army commander yelled: "Grab them. Bring them here."
Soldiers broke into teams of four and caught them, carrying each by his arms and legs into the bus.
Two soldiers driving all-terrain motorbikes chased other protesters down a dirt hill and through a field, then stopped in the shade near Abu Salah's home. His children rushed toward them and shouted in Hebrew: "Peace, good."
Like many Palestinians, Abu Salah goes by a name that means the father of his first-born son. His is one of about 1,600 Palestinian families living in the al-Mawasi area inside the Gush Katif (search) cluster of Jewish settlements, cut off from the rest of Gaza by a security fence meant to protect the settlers.
The Shirat Hayam settlement was founded along the beach four years ago — Israel's response to an attack on a group of children in the Kfar Darom settlement down the road.
Al-Mawasi residents were among those most affected by the intefadeh, or Palestinian uprising, and Israel's countermeasures. Farmers could not cross the fence to move their goods to market. Families were cut off from relatives. Shops and restaurants were separated from customers.
Before Shirat Hayam, the closest settlement was Neve Dekalim more than a half mile away, far enough to have little effect on Abu Salah's daily life. But the tiny new settlement had an immediate impact.
Settlers took over and closed one of the beach-front fish restaurants he owned, he said. Business at another of his restaurants near Khan Younis (search) dried up during the violence. Then, three years ago, he said, some settlers went on a rampage and burned down part of his remaining restaurant in broad daylight.
Looking at the settlement's cluster of red-tiled roofs, Abu Salah said, "It has ruined our lives."
He strode up to one of the Israeli soldiers on motorbikes. "You worked hard today," he said.
A few minutes later, the soldiers turned to go without entering the settlement.
"You guys are leaving? That's it? You're finished?" Abu Salah asked, bewildered.
One soldier said they'd be back soon to take care of the rest of the settlement and drove off, leaving Abu Salah satisfied that things would soon be better.