KIBBUTZ KARMIYYA, Israel — Dana Chetrit, her husband Alain and their two young children in August 2005 reluctantly left their home in the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai, never to return.


They were among 8,000 Israeli settlers evicted by their own government from 21 settlements in Gaza, in a move heralded as ending 38 years of Israeli occupation and as bringing closer an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To Chetrit, a 36-year-old art teacher, the pullout brought broken dreams, broken promises and a broken marriage.

It has not brought a golden age for the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million Palestinians either.

Today the coastal territory is run by the militant Islamist movement Hamas while Israel has an iron grip on its airspace and sea lanes, maintaining a total blockade on both while tightly restricting land access.

Gazans are no longer admitted to neighboring Israel, cutting off a job market which used to employ around 20,000 of them every day, and are rarely allowed to export any produce.

As a result Gaza unemployment has climbed to about 40 percent and is expected to continue rising, while the United Nations says 80 percent of the population depend on food aid.

Still, Gazans say, life today is better than it was when Israeli troops were present everywhere.

"My God, I hope those days never return," said Fadi Zindah, 26, who had the settlement of Dugit as his neighbor, 250 meters (yards) from his home in the northern Gaza Strip.

"We could not leave the house before nine in the morning or after the sunset call to prayer," he said. "If we looked out of the window at night, the soldiers would fire immediately, so we had to keep them closed."

Mubarak al-Sawarka, 32, who lives between what were once Dugit and Elei Sinai, says he had to show a written permit from the Israeli military to leave home in the morning and return in the evening, with passage allowed only at specific hours.

"Our life was a big, dangerous prison during the days of the settlements," he said.

Five years since soldiers ordered settler Dana Chetrit out of her home, she is still living in temporary accommodation at the Karmiya kibbutz just across the border in Israel.

Her marriage collapsed under the strain of the move.

As a 22-year-old newly-wed in 1996, she had found her ideal home in the small settlement of Elei Sinai, just inside the Gaza Strip and about five kilometers (three miles) from where she now lives.

"It was our first home, it was the home we had been looking for," she said. "We wanted to live in a communal community, it was cheap, there were other young couples there, everyone was like us."

The idyll was shattered in October 2001 when Hamas gunmen cut through the settlement's perimeter fence and shot dead a 19-year-old girl and her 20-year-old boyfriend.

Another 15 Israelis were wounded before the attackers were shot dead in a gun battle with soldiers.

Chetrit said the incident only strengthened her attachment to the settlement and her commitment to her neighbors.

But in 2004, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. On August 18, 2005, the Chetrits were turfed out of their home.

The violence, however, followed them across the border to the small kibbutz collective farm, where she and the boys now live in a five-roomed prefabricated house.

Gaza militants regularly fire rockets across the border.

In February 2006, a Qassam rocket, produced in the workshops of the Palestinian territory, thudded into a neighbor's house, destroying it and blowing a toddler out of the playpen in which he had been sitting.

The injured child recovered but the traumatized parents moved out the same day.

"Rockets had fallen before but this was a direct hit," Chetrit said. "If you had seen the house, you would have been amazed that anybody could come out of it alive."

In a separate attack, a rocket fell on the kibbutz football pitch, injuring two people, she said, adding that there were plenty of near misses as well.

Of around 50 families from Elei Sinai who were initially housed at Karmiya, only about 20 remain today, some driven out by fear of more rockets.

Chetrit, who has been promised land on which to build a home in the nearby village of Talme Yafe, said the bureaucratic wheels are turning very slowly.

"We haven't yet received a plot," she said. "By the time we get building permits ... it could be another four or five years."

She is not going to move again until she has a permanent home. "Qassams or no Qassams, I'm not leaving again ... I can't see myself packing up again and moving house," she said.

-- Steve Weizman, AFP