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Tempers, restraint mark Day 1 of pullout
Israelis left behind Wednesday will be dragged from their homes.
NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- The soldiers were expecting trouble, possibly violent resistance from settlers about to be uprooted from their homes. Instead they mostly found tears, impassioned argument and sometimes a cold glass of water or an omelet.
Day One of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip did see flaring tempers, occasional scuffles and burning tires. But army commanders ordered troops to show restraint and sensitivity when handing out eviction notices -- until Wednesday when anyone left behind will be dragged out.
"Your pain and your tears are an inseparable part of this country's history," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told settlers Monday night during a nationally televised address in which he called the pullout a painful but essential step for Israel's future.
He said previously it had become too hard to defend the Gaza settlements and their 8,500 residents in an overcrowded area of 1.3 million Palestinians, and the presence of so many Arabs under Israeli control was threatening the Jewish character of the state.
Sharon has repeatedly said the withdrawal is designed to allow Israel to hold on to all of Jerusalem and major parts of the West Bank -- a position that raises questions about the prospects for peace since the Palestinians claim those areas for a state.
Nevertheless, Palestinians celebrated the beginning of the end for the 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip, and militant factions competed for credit for expelling the Israelis with their violent five-year uprising.
In his speech, Sharon urged Palestinian leaders to control extremists. "To an outstretched hand of peace we will respond with an olive branch, but fire will be met by fire more intense than ever," he said.
Sharon spent most of his career as a champion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, saying just two years ago that Israel would not give up even small, isolated Gaza settlements.
"But the changing reality in the nation, region and world made me change my mind and change my position," he said. "We cannot hold Gaza for good. More that a million Palestinians live there, doubling their numbers every generation."
Over the next three weeks, Israel plans to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the West Bank. The withdrawal marks the first time Israel will give up land captured during the 1967 Mideast War that is claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
Monday was the first day of a 48-hour grace period during which settlers can leave voluntarily without losing any of their government compensation. It became illegal for Israelis to live in Gaza at midnight Sunday, and on Wednesday troops will begin dragging out any settlers still there.
Eviction notices were distributed in about two-thirds of the settlements to be evacuated, police said.
Officials said two West Bank settlements slated for evacuation -- Ganim and Kadim, with about 170 residents each -- had already been evacuated. By Monday night, hundreds of settlers had left Gaza or were preparing to do so, though exact numbers were not known. One senior official, Eival Giladi, predicted half of Gaza's settlers would be out by Wednesday's deadline.
Complicating the army's mission, some 5,000 pullout opponents from outside Gaza came to the coastal area in recent weeks, and vowed to resist.
Throughout the Gaza settlements Monday, soldiers trudged through temperatures above 100 degrees to distribute leaflets or slide them under closed doors, warning settlers they had until midnight Tuesday to leave voluntarily.
Some 200 families accepted the army's help to load their effects into trucks and move out immediately.
"We don't have any more tears left," Michal Yahieli said while packing her belongings in Neve Dekalim.
Protesters burned tires -- a protest tactic often used by Palestinians -- in the industrial zone of Neve Dekalim, Gaza's largest settlement with 2,700 residents.
Angry settlers at Neve Dekalim heckled the Gaza military commander, Maj. Dan Harel, and police escorted him away. The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, met similar outbursts and had to be hustled away.
But in most places encounters were less hostile. Soldiers, both women and men, comforted and hugged civilians who broke down when it came time for them to go.
One woman, leaving a huge house in Nissanit with crystal chandeliers and man-sized audio speakers, prepared omelets and cold water for the soldiers dismantling a wooden deck rimming her swimming pool.
"It's a disgrace," the woman, who identified herself only as Orly, said of the government's decision to evacuate Gaza. "But the soldiers are wonderful."
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he was filled with hope, but insisted Israel must hand over more land.
Palestinian officials announced that Abbas had scheduled Jan. 21 as the date for long-delayed legislative elections. The timing of the statement appeared aimed at showing that Israel is delivering Gaza into responsible hands capable of advancing democracy.
Many Palestinians are wary of Israel's intentions, especially if it retains control of Gaza's borders and the territory's access to air and sea travel.
"It's great they are getting out, but I am getting a bad feeling that we will remain under their control," said Jihad Safi, the 37-year-old owner of a clothing store in the Palestinian town of Khan Younis, which overlooks the Morag settlement.
Hamas activists in Gaza City hung banners proclaiming the pullout as a victory for their uprising. "The blood of martyrs has led to liberation," said one. In Khan Younis, masked militants marched through the streets with rocket launchers to celebrate.
There have been worries that militants would attack Israelis during the pullout to make it look like a retreat. But with ordinary Palestinians looking for positive changes out of the withdrawal, the extremist groups might refrain from major violence.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group would hold its fire.
"Hamas is committed to the quiet," he said. "The ball is on the Israeli side now. If they will evacuate the Gaza Strip quietly, I think that there is no one among our people who will obstruct or violate this evacuation."