Conflict, cooperation in Gaza

Settlers' insults and pleas no match for Israeli force

August 18, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MORAG, Gaza Strip - At dawn yesterday, the narrow road winding through the sand dunes to this isolated settlement was impassable, littered with oil, tree branches that had been dragged onto the asphalt, toppled concrete barriers, coils of barbed wire and chunks of stone.

The message to the hundreds of Israeli police and soldiers gathering outside the settlement's main gate to evict about 400 Jewish settlers and protesters defiantly staying here was clear: You are not welcome.

The stage seemed set for the showdown almost every Israeli feared.

There would indeed be tears, unmistakable anguish and moments when the police and soldiers seemed about to falter. But even here, in Morag, one of the most steadfast Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's orders to end Israel's 38-year occupation of Gaza prevailed.

The soldiers waited until just before 9 a.m.

Then an engine roared to life, the bulldozer was slipped into gear and moved steadily forward to clear the debris on the road. Two lines of Israeli troops, armed with handcuffs, fire extinguishers and riot control gear, walked determinedly in front toward the settlement gate.

On the other side of the fence, Morag's residents and their supporters were no less determined.

As the troops massed, a man with a megaphone ordered the community into action. Men in prayer shawls and sandals gathered plastic bags filled with bread and groceries and ran into the settlement's synagogue, locking the door. Other residents climbed to second-story attics, pulling up the ladders behind them. Young boys in knitted skullcaps poured gasoline on piles of wood and rubbish bins, setting them alight.

But it was nearly the end for the settlers and their supporters, despite their hopes that the soldiers and police would refuse to act.

Tears slipped down the cheeks of Aharan Shevo, a Holocaust survivor who a week ago came to Morag to support his son, a Morag resident for eight years.

Shevo said the prospect of seeing his son forced onto a bus was upsettingly similar to the treatment he and his family received when they were taken from their homes by German soldiers during World War II.

"They knocked on our doors and they took us to the railroads," said Shevo, who as a baby was sent to the Auschwitz death camp. "This is more terrible, because Jews are taking away other Jews."

The bulldozer pushed aside the concrete barriers and tree limbs. Soldiers extinguished the fires. More than a hundred troops linked arms and stepped forward in an overwhelming show of force.

A lone settler stood on a rooftop, waving orange ribbons - the color that became a symbol of resistance to the withdrawal - and cried out: "We are not the enemy."

A bearded man in an orange T-shirt stained with sweat screamed at the approaching forces: "There are no criminals here."

The unarmed Israeli troops listened politely to the taunts for more than an hour. Soldiers walked aimlessly up and down the street, reminding the Jewish settlers that they were here to enforce the law. It was time for the settlers to go.

And two settlers said too much, or seemed a threat. Soldiers grabbed them by their arms and legs and carried them to a bus. Young women, weeping, followed along the street. A mother holding a baby in her arms and with a toddler by her side shouted at the troops, pleading that they not evict the settlers.

The resistance here was no surprise. Founded as a religious farming community in 1972, Morag was home to 40 families who pursued simple lives, farming tomatoes and spices in greenhouses on land they believe God had promised them.

About half the families had left before midnight, the deadline set by the Israeli government. But those who remained did their best to intimidate the troops, and the settlers' efforts at first seemed to work.

The troops, enduring the taunts and a blistering sun, appeared hesitant and weak. A young female officer fell to the ground, sobbing.

"I can't," she told a commander before being ordered away.

Soon, another soldier started weeping. Then a third.

"You're a criminal. You're a criminal. You're a criminal," a mother cried to the soldiers before the unit retreated to the shade to regroup.

"Let's see you uproot this bush," said one settler, pointing at a front yard hedge. "Then let's see you uproot a family."

More troops arrived, some carrying helmets and body armor, and stood in the square outside Morag's synagogue. A half-dozen buses arrived, their engines idling, and stood by waiting for settlers to board for a last trip out of Gaza.

For nearly two hours, there were no signs of progress. Then three couples staying with their children in the settlement's kindergarten surrendered, realizing that they were no match for the growing number of soldiers. Their bags already packed, the families agreed to leave without resistance.

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