Israel clears out Gaza settlement without repeat of settler violence

Saturday, August 20, 2005

GADID, Gaza Strip -- Israeli forces on Friday cleared out one of the last strongholds of opposition to the Gaza pullout and began demolishing homes in an empty settlement, avoiding a repeat of previous day's violence in which youths pelted soldiers with acid, oil and sand.

After Friday's speedy operation, all but four of the 21 Gaza settlements stood empty when the army suspended the evictions for the Jewish sabbath. Israel's commander for the region, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said the remainder could be emptied by next Tuesday -- weeks ahead of schedule.

Speaking to some 700 cheering supporters at the defunct Gaza International Airport, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said his people were experiencing "historic days of joy."

"This pullout is a result of our sacrifice, of our patience, the sacrifice of our people, the steadfastness, and the wise people of our nation," Abbas said, promising jobs, freedom of movement and the rebuilding of the airport and of homes destroyed during Israel's 38-year occupation. His Fatah party faces a challenge by the militant group Hamas in January parliamentary elections.

In the southern Palestinian town of Rafah, hundreds of Palestinians gathered outside the gate of an abandoned Jewish settlement to offer Friday prayers of thanks. Many wore T-shirts with the Palestinian flag and the slogan: "Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem."

The Israeli army began digging trenches Friday around empty settlements to prevent Palestinian processions from entering. The army is expected to remain in the area for several weeks to dismantle its own installations before turning over the territory to the Palestinians.

In the Jewish outpost of Kerem Atzmona, Israeli bulldozers crushed several empty trailer homes, the first home demolitions since the withdrawal began. Israel plans to demolish all homes in the abandoned settlements and remove hazardous waste.

Families who left before last Tuesday's deadline would get up to $300,000 in compensation. Those who resisted could lose up to a third of the aid.

Friday's lone mission, to clear out Gadid, began at sunrise. A few holdout families, along with 60 hardline "reinforcements" from outside Gaza, were in the community when the troops entered.

In what has become a familiar scene this week, settlers set two cars, wooden planks, and garbage bins on fire, sending a thick plume of black smoke into the air. "Enjoy the show," said Moses Golden, a protester who threw gasoline on a fire.

A military bulldozer cleared debris, and troops quickly fanned throughout the settlement.

Most of the protesters holed up in the settlement's synagogue, where they were permitted to hold morning prayers. After negotiations with police, the protesters agreed not to resist with force. Police moved into the building and carried the protesters away into waiting buses.

Troops rounded up a few holdouts who climbed on the roofs of houses. One female protester slipped off a roof, suffering light to moderate injuries, the army said.

Palestinian militants opened fire at an army outpost in Gadid, causing no damage or injuries. Palestinian officials have pledged to maintain calm during the pullout, and there have been only isolated instances of gun and mortar fire this week.

Dozens of Israeli protesters escaped from an evacuation bus carrying them back to Israel and fled into a Palestinian area of Gaza, the army said. Two were later recaptured, and soldiers were searching for the others.

The scene in Gadid was a sharp contrast to the fierce standoffs Thursday between troops and young protesters in the Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom settlements. At least 41 police and soldiers and 17 civilians were injured, and about 50 people were arrested.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he was infuriated by the violence and the rioters would be prosecuted. Investigators would also check "who sent them (the rioters) and who incited them," he told the Haaretz daily.

Sharon said he was saddened when watching the evacuation of Kfar Darom on television. "But in the evening, when I saw the tossing of those bottles of poisonous substances, or harmful substances, and the injury to ... soldiers and police, my mood altered and the pain turned to rage," he said.

In Kfar Darom, dozens of protesters had barricaded themselves behind razor wire on the synagogue roof, at first singing and waving flags, then attacking soldiers below with caustic liquids and objects, including paint-filled light bulbs.

Stunned police and soldiers, shaking in confusion, ripped off their helmets and clothes after being splashed by what police said was acid. Comrades quickly poured water on their heads and bodies. Some of the men gasped for air, and one sat on the floor, seeming disoriented.

To break the siege, army cranes lowered metal cages filled with helmeted troops onto the roof, as cannons sprayed protesters with blasts of blue-tinted water. Other troops carrying wire cutters climbed ladders slick with oil. Then the troops removed the protesters one by one.

At Neve Dekalim, troops wrestled for hours against some 1,500 extremists making their last stand inside Gaza's largest settlement. Protesters lay on the synagogue floor with their arms linked, kicking against the Israeli forces while supporters held their shoulders in a tug-of-war.

After breaking the human chain, troops dragged protesters out of the synagogue, holding them by their arms and legs as they twisted and squirmed. Other protesters chanted "blasphemy, blasphemy."

By Friday morning, Neve Dekalim was virtually empty, with security forces, journalists, a few rabbis and a small number of pullout resisters the only remaining inhabitants.

"It is terribly sad to see the empty streets," said Eitan Ben-Mor, who had come from his home in the Golan Heights a week ago to lend support to the pullout resistance, and planned to leave after the morning prayer.

"The children are missing. The parents are missing," he said. "The most simple things of day-to-day life were taken away cruelly, and by force."

For years, 8,500 Israelis lived among Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians in perpetual tension and frequently lethal violence. Sharon says the pullout will improve Israel's security.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Friday it may take weeks to complete the operation.

Troops will begin evacuating four West Bank enclaves targeted by Sharon's plan by the middle of next week, a military official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans are not definite. Two of the four are already empty of residents, the official said. The other two, Sanur and Homesh, are filled with hundreds of hard-liners.

In an interview published Friday, Sharon said he has no plans to uproot any more Jewish settlements soon. Instead, he said peacemaking would be based on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

"The burden of proof now rests on the Palestinian side," Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Although the government has offered temporary housing to uprooted settlers, many refused to cooperate. Many settlers came to Jerusalem on Thursday to pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Some spent the night sleeping outside in the city's main public park.

"I have absolutely no where to go tonight. I have no house, so I'm coming here to the Western Wall near the Temple Mount to pray for the everlasting house," said Anita Tucker, a former settler from Netzer Hazani. "The holy Temple, that's the only house I have left, and that's what I'm going to go for."

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