In Gaza, protests and tears

Many Jewish settlers resist order to leave, clash with Israeli troops

August 17, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip - Thousands of defiant Jewish settlers and their supporters faced off at dawn today with Israeli troops who poured in to evict them from the Gaza Strip in accordance with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's landmark decision to hand over the territory to the Palestinians.

More than 100 Israeli military vehicles rumbled toward the settlements before dawn. But protesters barred the way to many communities, including the largest, Neve Dekalim, where troops and protesters had clashed the day before.

At the seaside settlement of Shirat Hayam, teenage protesters erected a barricade of tires, bricks and debris. A settlement spokeswoman, Hana Picards, told journalists: "No family has packed or has plans to pack. ... I still believe in a miracle, that this won't happen."

At first light in Neve Dekalim, a weeping settler in her 30s spoke to an army lieutenant colonel, telling him again and again: "This is insane, this is immoral. ... We're supposed to be on the same side."

The officer explained that the withdrawal was a democratic decision and that soldiers had to carry it out.

The deadline for the 8,500 Jewish settlers and their supporters to go passed at midnight with perhaps half having packed their belongings. A trickle of cars loaded with furnishings was crossing the Gaza border into Israel.

Yesterday, police and soldiers walked down the streets of the settlements, urging those remaining to pack their belongings and join those on the way out. A company of soldiers stood by to help carry boxes or provide transportation.

In Neve Dekalim, the settlement that has become a center of resistance, some families accepted the offer. But in most cases, the soldiers and police met with closed doors, cold stares or screaming residents who accused them of destroying a homeland they believe God set aside for the Jews.

Soldiers cut down some of Neve Dekalim's fencing overnight Monday and early yesterday marched in formation through the gate and fanned out through the village.

Commanders carried maps, and troops took up positions near the industrial zone. They arrested 48 demonstrators who threw stones and eggs at soldiers, and police tried to clear the way for a convoy of moving vans for residents who wanted to leave.

Protesters young and old taunted the soldiers, calling them "Nazis" and shouting, "Jews do not expel other Jews." Settlers burned trash bins in the middle of the street, slashed tires of police and army vehicles, and splattered paint on windshields. Plumes of smoke from fires set by protesters rose into the night sky.

Young girls sat on street corners, weeping at the sight of the police and soldiers.

A young woman in a white skirt and shirt cornered a group of soldiers on a dead-end street, stared them in the eye and pleaded with them to reconsider their actions.

"You should do what your heart tells you, not what your commander tells you," she said, wagging her finger.

"Our neighbors are buried here. Why are you tearing us away?" another women said to police. "Are you fulfilling orders? Adolf Eichmann fulfilled orders."

"The soldiers will go from house to house, knocking at the door, taking them by the [arm] and moving them out of the area," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, who is in charge of the combined Israeli military and police forces during the pullout.

"We understand the grief of the families who have to leave their homes, their work, their communities and the crisis they have in their ideological beliefs," he said. "At the same time, we have to come in and enforce the law."

Arriving with armored personnel carriers and bulldozers, the unarmed Israeli forces plan to present overwhelming force to subdue the unruly gangs of protesters who have been taunting and clashing with authorities during the past two days.

Soldiers and police wore caps and vests displaying Israel's flag instead of their unit insignia as a sign that they did not view the settlers as the "enemy." But protesters, many of them young Jewish settlers from the West Bank, accused soldiers and police of acting like Nazis and urged them to disobey orders.

Two police officers and two civilians were injured in scuffles. Many of the protesters arrested yesterday were taken out of Gaza and released on bail.

Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said he expected at least half of Gaza's 8,500 settlers to leave without resistance.

"We will make every effort, the army and the police, to have law and order in this process, and anyone who acts illegally will be treated according to the law," Mofaz said. Some of the smaller Gaza settlements were said to be empty.

Despite fears that Palestinian militants would attack settlers and soldiers during the withdrawal, the Israeli army said Gaza remained quieter than normal. Instead of the usual 10 militant attacks or incidents per day, there were three minor explosions and shootings.

When Palestinian youths attempted yesterday to go near the settlements, Palestinian security forces stopped them.

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