From an altitude of only 200 feet, it's possible to pick out the military bases and settlements slated for evacuation in the coming weeks as Israel begins its historic withdrawal from Gaza. From above, you can draw a map of a high-stakes game that will be played out between Israeli soldiers, police and settlers and, perhaps, the militants of Hamas and other Palestinian factions and the security forces of the Palestinian Authority. Here's how the opening positions look on the game board.
The Gaza Strip is 25 miles south of Tel Aviv, a matter of minutes by helicopter. The military post at the corner of the fence, which was built in 1994 to prevent terrorists crossing into Israel, gazes out over a sea of concrete. This is the village of Beit Hanoun, which merges with the massive refugee camp of Jabalya and, in turn, Gaza City itself. There is no break in the drab urban sprawl until our Twin Star chopper passes the dunes around the Israeli settlement of Netzarim.
Protected by a battalion of soldiers, Netzarim lies at the very edge of Gaza City, its dunes studded with plastic greenhouses. It is scheduled to be one of the first three settlements evacuated when Israel begins its withdrawal next week. About 60 percent of all the Gaza settlers have signed a compensation agreement with the government, implying an acceptance of the inevitability of moving though most won't actually leave until the last moment. No one among the residents of Netzarim has yet volunteered to pack up and leave.
Further down the Gaza Strip, the light orange stripes of open land become wider. This is the settlement bloc called Gush Katif, where most of the 10,000 Israelis due for evacuation live. Gush Katif is surrounded by scrubby dunes, guarded by tanks.
The entrance to all the settlements, except Netzarim, is the Kissufim checkpoint. It appears as we skirt the Gaza fence not even Israeli military helicopters are allowed to fly directly above Gaza for fear of ground-to-air missiles. A single road to the settlements winds through groves of Eucalyptus trees. At the side of the checkpoint, there is a wide, flat, dusty square lined with armored personnel carriers and olive drab military tents. If protesters against the withdrawal get this far, the army needs to have enough soldiers here to stop them.
But getting this far wouldn't be easy. At each junction or side road for miles around, there is a checkpoint manned by police and soldiers. Residents of the area including the 11,000 people who live inside Israel on the Gaza border in what's known as the Eshkol region need special ID cards to pass the barriers. Anyone else is turned away, in case they're protesters hoping to infiltrate Gush Katif to prevent the evacuation.
"The army are the new bosses here," says Hubert Mignolet, an official with the Eshkol Regional Council, when we touch down to refuel at the press center set up by Israel's military in the council's offices. Israeli officials expect 4,000 foreign journalists to come to cover the evacuations.
Eshkol has already set up three new villages in the Negev Desert to house settlers permanently inside Israel who want to continue living near their old homes a few miles away in Gaza. The council marked out plots and fitted a water supply to Shlomit, Halutzit 1 and Halutzit 4, which are each less than two miles from the Egyptian border. It'll cost each settler household about $40,000 to build a house there. The average compensation the government's paying each family of Gaza settlers is about $360,000.
But while they wait for their new homes to be built, settlers are to be moved to temporary locations. As we rise again to 250 feet, we fly above some of these "caravillas." They're two- or three-bedroom temporary structures with roofs that are sometimes slate-gray, sometimes red. Laid out in neat cul-de-sacs, the government is putting down turf for the gardens. The government doesn't want the settlers to feel disregarded, like the new immigrants who came from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union during the 1990s, who were initially housed in rotten caravans like those used as temporary offices on construction sites.
The biggest of these caravilla parks is at Nitzan, a small town north of the Gaza Strip separated by high dunes from the aquamarine seashore. Some of its 350 caravillas are inhabited by the families who have already left the three non-religious Gaza Strip settlements along the north of the fence. These “secular” settlers moved without a fight because they were for the most part originally drawn to Gaza by the economic incentives offered by the government for living there, rather than by the religious settlers' zeal to “redeem” the Holy Land. From the sky, we see children's swimming pools and bicycles in the gardens.
Nitzan is still north of the main events here. Our helicopter must first cross the "tent city" set up by the Israeli army to house the 10,000 soldiers who'll carry out the evacuation. The rows of tents, separated by bright tarpaulins in blue, green, red to mark the codenames of each unit, look dusty even from the sky. It's quiet down there during the day, as the soldiers train elsewhere in the country. They're readying mainly for verbal abuse from settlers, who are expected to try and create doubt in the minds of the soldiers by equating their mission to the persecution and expulsion of Jews throughout history.
When we reach the first of the caravillas at the northern corner of the Gaza Strip, we hover above a nearby battalion of tanks, parked in neat rows. Their presence reflects Israeli fears that Palestinian militants will try to attack the settlements during the relative chaos of the withdrawal. If that happens, these tanks will roll in to keep Palestinian gunmen occupied until the withdrawal is complete. Only one dune separates the field of tanks from the fence and the village of Beit Hanoun. It might not take much a few homemade Qassam rockets to set the tanks rolling.
Our flight turns along the north of the Gaza Strip toward the sea leaving behind the withdrawal itself and focusing on Israel's fears for the future. Hard on the border fence is Netiv ha-Asara, a small farming community. Last month, a Qassam rocket dropped onto the leafy dune-top village and killed an Israeli woman. When Israel pulls out of Gaza, Netiv ha-Asara could become an even easier target for the rockets, a new frontline.
Four miles north along the coastal dunes, the twin smokestacks of the Ashkelon power plant blink their red warning lights. These, too, are within easy range of the rockets of Hamas once Israel takes its troops out of northern Gaza, as are the massive circular fuel tanks around its perimeter, and Israeli officials fear a strike against the plant could cripple Israel's electricity grid. It abuts the city of Ashkelon, which has grown to a mpopulation of 120,000 as new immigrants from Russia flooded into its bright white apartment blocks during the last decade. "That," says Miri Eisen, a former Israeli army colonel who rides the helicopter with us, "makes a pretty good target, too."