BEDOLAH, Gaza Strip – A backhoe tore into the roof of the Krief family home in this empty Israeli settlement Tuesday, setting off an avalanche of shingles, bits of wood and chunks of masonry.

In the operator’s cabin, Rajeh Assayid, an Israeli Arab, admitted to feeling uneasy about his task: demolishing the homes of residents evacuated last week.

“I don’t feel good about it at all, because in the end we’re human beings,” he said. “But there’s nothing you can do about it.”

At Bedolah and in other vacated settlements in the Gaza Strip, bulldozers dispatched by the Israeli Defense Ministry are tearing down homes, leaving mounds of rubble where neighborhoods stood less than a week ago.

The razing of the Gaza settlements, transformed in days from living communities to ghost towns, has put a stamp of finality on the evacuation here, sending the message that the settlers will not return.

Israeli soldiers and police removed nearly 9,000 settlers and a few thousand supporters from the 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip in less than a week, setting the stage for a military withdrawal from the territory next month.

Under an agreement reached with the Palestinian Authority, Israel is wrecking the settlers’ homes, and the rubble will be cleared later by the Palestinians.

Palestinian officials say they plan to use the settlement lands to build housing projects to help relieve crowded living conditions in the Gaza Strip, home to 1.4 million Palestinians.

For the settlers, the demolition has sealed what they call their expulsion.

At the evacuated settlement of Rafiah Yam on Tuesday, Yaakov Hadad, 45, the local security officer, stood on a mound of compacted rubble that had once been his home. He had come back to visit the wreckage site, seeking closure.

“I felt that I had to see the house demolished so I won’t have an image in my head that it is still standing,” he said. “I can’t live with something that is gone. It was important for me to see it for the last time.”

Abandoned belongings, scraps of life, poked out of mounds of wreckage: a loudspeaker, a roller-blade, pieces of a wooden checkerboard. In one mostly demolished house, laundry still hung on a line.

In Bedolah, the backhoe punched into a room, revealing the words, “I love my house,” painted on the opposite wall.

Near the entrance of the house someone had written, “I evacuated you from your home with great sorrow!” The name of the writer was rubbed out.

At the home of the Kriefs, a message scrawled on a wall to the Palestinians proclaimed: “Today we are leaving the place we loved. We were there only 12 years, which is really not much. But I am sure that you Arabs will die and that the Messiah will come. This house will be ours, only ours.”

The backhoe knocked down the graffiti-covered wall, then the rest of the house. A bulldozer nearby took down another home, its shingled roof settling, almost in one piece, to the ground.

At Neve Dekalim, the largest Israeli settlement, the houses were still standing, but some vacated homes bore signs of vandalism by departing residents. Glass from shattered windows littered the floors, toilets and sinks were smashed, and kitchen counters were broken.

The settlers’ anger was written on the walls.

“A family of Jews left here, and soon a family of Arabs will celebrate here on the roof, and you were partners to that!” read a message to soldiers.

Other graffiti read: “You expelled Jews from their homes, and you will pay.” “We were here, and we will never forget.” “Your conscience will haunt you for the rest of your life.”

Lawns and gardens that had been watered to the end were littered with trash and abandoned household belongings. Shipping containers lined the streets, filled with the contents of the doomed houses.

Outside the empty settlement of Katif, a homemade banner left by residents read, “We’ll be right back.”

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-23-05 2101EDT

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