Conflict, cooperation in Gaza

Withdrawal seems to be going more smoothly than expected

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

MORAG, Gaza Strip - Israeli soldiers and police moved swiftly from door to door yesterday in Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, asking settlers to leave and in many cases then dragging them out of their homes, from rooftops and out of barricaded synagogues.

The plan for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza after an 18-year occupation appeared to be moving faster and more smoothly than the government anticipated, and officials spoke of emptying the last of Gaza's 21 settlements before the end of next week.

But it involved soldiers carrying screaming, thrashing settlers onto buses, other settlers cursing and taunting authorities, and some troops being reduced to tears. While no one was reported seriously injured in Gaza, a gunman in the West Bank killed four Palestinians at the settlement of Shilo before being overpowered and arrested. The gunman, identified as Israeli Asher Weisgan, 40, from the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rahel, was a driver who transported Palestinian laborers to jobs in Shilo and seized the weapon of a security guard.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun on the removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip referred erroneously to Israel's 18-year occupation of the area. Israel has occupied the Gaza Strip for 38 years. The Sun regrets the error.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon condemned the shootings as acts of "Jewish terror" aimed at stopping the withdrawal from Gaza. The violence, he said, was "directed at innocent Palestinians in the warped desire to thereby stop the disengagement plan."

An Islamic militant group said it would not retaliate for the killings. "Hamas, as well as all Palestinians, are interested in seeing the Zionist settlers leave our land as soon as possible," a Hamas spokesman said. "But if these crimes continue, factions will not stand by silently."

By last night, police and soldiers in Gaza had completed the evacuation of five settlements: Morag, Keren Atzmona, Bedolah, Ganei Tal and Tel Katifa. Authorities and settlement leaders agreed to complete the evacuation of the largest of the settlements, Neve Dekalim, today. The settlements of Gadid, Peat Sadegh, Rafiah Yam, Shalev, Dugit and Nisanit were nearly empty.

Israeli news media reported that as many as two-thirds of Gaza's 8,500 settlers were gone.

This first day of forced removals brought emotional displays of cooperation and conflict, as settlers and soldiers argued and embraced. Many settlers left without resistance, even driving their own vehicles out. Others wore the six-pointed Star of David on their clothes, an effort to draw a comparison between the Holocaust and the withdrawal.

There were many scuffles. In Morag, a girl stabbed a female soldier attempting to evict her from the settlement's synagogue, the Israeli military said. A man in Morag was arrested after being caught with spikes, chemical substances and other material to be used in protests.

In Neve Dekalim, soldiers wearing flak jackets joined about 150 students holding a prayer session at a religious seminary. The soldiers embraced the students before escorting them onto buses. 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.

Tensions rose in settlements controlled by religious extremists. In Kfar Darom, protesters blocked access to the settlement's entrance. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that police teams were heading there last night to remove its residents and more than 1,000 supporters.

Sharon, one of the master architects of Israeli's settlement program, said the images of settlers being removed from their homes were heartbreaking. "It's impossible to watch this, and that includes myself, without tears in the eyes," he said at a news conference, while urging the settlers to act responsibly.

"I'm appealing to everyone," he said. "Don't attack the men and women in uniform. Don't accuse them. Don't make it harder for them. Don't harm them. Attack me. I am responsible for this. Attack me. Accuse me."

In Morag, after a morning of considerable tensions, soldiers and settlement leaders worked together to diffuse the protests and begin escorting residents onto waiting buses.

Many of the protesters, who moved into the settlements in recent weeks to make the military's job more difficult, assumed from the start that they could not overpower thousands of soldiers.

"Sometimes you have to wage lost battles," said Batsheva Hershovitz, 50, a protester from Jerusalem who had occupied an abandoned Morag house during the past week. As troops gathered outside the settlement's entrance, she stood on the balcony watching what was likely her last sunrise in Gaza.

Army commanders expressed cautious satisfaction about their progress. "We're in more settlements than we had planned," said Israeli Army Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv. If there are no other major protests, he said, the army could complete the removal of settlers within days.

After the settlers leave, it will be a month or more before Israel will formally give the land to the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli army must pack up all the settlers' belongings, demolish the settlers' homes and dismantle the military bases before withdrawing its troops.

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