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Israeli Soldiers Clear Out Gaza Strip

August 18, 2005 11:18 IST

Jewish settlers sobbed and screamed, some of them ripping their shirts in mourning, as Israeli troops dragged them from homes and synagogues on Wednesday-- the beginning of the end of Israel's 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, a settler killed four Palestinian labourers in a shooting rampage, which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denounced as a twisted act of "Jewish terror" designed to stop the historic pullout.

Despite the escalation of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the eviction of die-hard settlers and their nationalist supporters who flooded into Gaza in recent weeks moved forward-- with anguish, anger and tears, but more swiftly and smoothly than anyone anticipated.

A convoy left before dawn on Thursday, beginning the second day of the forcible evacuation. Troops entered the settlement of Kfar Darom, an extremist centre where up to 2,000 settlers and backers have barricaded themselves in with concrete blocks, barbed wire and other barriers.

Sharon proposed his "disengagement plan" two years ago to ease Israel's security burden and help preserve the country's Jewish character by placing Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians outside Israeli boundaries. Under the plan, Israel will remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank-- the first time it has removed veteran settlements from either area.

Some 14,000 unarmed Israeli soldiers and police entered six settlements throughout Wednesday, forcibly evicting residents who refused to leave voluntarily. According to the army, 1,842 people were evacuated Wednesday. Of 1,600 families in Gaza, only 600 remained by the end of the day.

Soldiers and settlers clashed, argued and hugged, reflecting intense and mixed emotions at the uprooting of settlers whose government years ago encouraged them to move to Gaza for the sake of Israel's security.

"It's impossible to watch this ... without tears in the eyes," Sharon said, but he insisted the pullout would make Israel safer.

Palestinian militants said they would refrain from retaliating for the West Bank shooting. Still, a mortar shell fell near Israeli soldiers in Gaza, without causing casualties, and Palestinian youngsters threw stones at an Israeli tank outside Neve Dekalim, Gaza's largest Jewish settlement. The tank crew responded with tear gas and fired shells into the sand.

Also, Israeli troops found a 22-pound explosives belt hidden in a water tank during a raid on the Palestinian town of Mawasi, near a Gaza settlement. Four Palestinians were arrested, the army said.

The day was filled with heart-rending scenes as troops carried settlers out of homes, synagogues, even nursery schools.

Soldiers joined anti-withdrawal protesters in prayer before evicting them. An elderly rabbi hugged a Torah scroll as he was escorted away. A young man read from his prayer book as soldiers carried him to a bus. Teenagers burned tires in streets in last acts of defiance.

Under a willow tree at a children's nursery, mothers clutched babies as troops loaded diapers and toys onto buses for evacuation.

A soldier with tears in her eyes held a toddler in her arms, gave him some candy and implored, "Where is his mother?" Another soldier waved away flies from a toddler lying in a stroller.

By evening, five of the six settlements that troops entered in the morning were cleared, with resisters remaining only in Neve Dekalim-- for months the epicentre of resistance.

Palestinian militants are portraying the pullout as a victory for their suicide bombings and rocket attacks.

Some fear militants will resume bloodshed once Israel's Gaza withdrawal is complete.

Israelis and Palestinians have been cooperating to prevent militant violence during the pullout, though lately Jewish extremists have caused the most concern. Wednesday's attack was the second on Palestinians by Israelis in two weeks.

On August 4, a 19-year-old Israeli deserter opened fire on a bus, killing four Israeli Arabs.

Sharon denounced the West Bank shooting as "an act of Jewish terror against innocent Palestinians out of twisted thinking."

Still, the prime minister was unlikely to allow the incident to derail the pullout-- an operation on which he has staked his political career.

The gunman, identified as Asher Weisgan, 40, from the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rahel, was a driver who transported Palestinian laborers to the industrial zone of the nearby settlement of Shilo every day. At the end of the day, he picked up the workers and briefly stopped at a security post.

He got out of his car, seized the weapon from the guard at knifepoint and fired from close range on two workers in his vehicle. He kept shooting, killing a third worker and wounding two others outside the car. One of them died later.

Hamas said it would not immediately retaliate to enable the Gaza pullout to proceed.

"But if these crimes continue, factions will not stand by silently," said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

Several hundred settlers broke out of Kfar Darom, a settlement due to be evacuated in the next few days, pushed large cinderblocks off a bridge and tried to burn down an Arab house, witnesses said.

Palestinians threw stones at the settlers until Israeli troops arrived, doused the fire and pushed the settlers back into the settlement.

In general, however, the evictions were peaceful. While settlers routinely carry weapons, they displayed none when the columns of soldiers and police marched into their communities.

Terje Roed-Larsen, who spent 12 years trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on behalf of the United Nations, praised Sharon for keeping the promise he made nearly two years ago.

"However, if this is the first step and the last step, I'm afraid that within months we will be back into a situation where violence and terrorism will prevail again and the living conditions of the citizens of Gaza will continue to deteriorate," Roed-Larsen, who stepped down in December as the UN's top Mideast envoy, warned in an interview.

The day's worst act of protest was the self-immolation of a 54-year-old woman from the West Bank at a police roadblock in southern Israel. She suffered life-threatening burns on 70 percent of her body, police and hospital officials said.

In Neve Dekalim, a man stood before a line of soldiers and held up his daughter, about 10 years old.

"Here. Take her. Expel her. Please take her, you are such a hero," he said, pouring scorn on the troops. The little girl, crying, looked up at the policeman and her father in sad confusion.

(Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.)

Amy Teibel in Gaza Strip
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