Israeli troops, police roust last-ditch Gaza resisters

2 synagogues stormed as holdouts in 17 of 21 settlements are forced out

August 19, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KFAR YAM, Gaza Strip - Israeli police and soldiers used riot gear, water cannons and bulldozers yesterday to force out Jewish settlers who had barricaded themselves in synagogues, on rooftops and in homes in a last-ditch effort to stop Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

In Kfar Darom, one of the most die-hard settlements, protesters and residents made a fortress on the synagogue's rooftop, encircling it in concertina wire and hurling down paint, bricks and what police believe was acid on approaching officers, slightly injuring more than 40. Police used water cannons to repel the protesters before plucking them off the roof with a crane and steel cage.

In Kfar Yam, security officials were preparing for an equally tough battle with a settler who had barricaded himself with his family and neighbors on his rooftop, threatening to use an assault rifle and other weapons to protect his seaside home. In the end, negotiators persuaded him to surrender his weapons. Instead of using bullets, the settlers pelted security officials with flour, eggs and chocolate.

Yesterday, the second day of forced evacuations, Israel deployed more than 15,000 troops to force out residents and protesters from 17 of Gaza Strip's 21 settlements. Despite the violence, the operation was moving quicker than authorities had predicted.

"All in all, this is a victory for the security forces and the settlers together because they are keeping the confrontation to such levels that are something we only wished for before we started this operation," said Israeli army Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, who is overseeing the withdrawal operation.

Harel said Israel's security forces planned to evacuate one more settlement today before breaking this afternoon and tomorrow for the Sabbath.

Next week, the forces will likely tackle the isolated settlement of Netzarim. Like Kfar Darom and Kfar Yam, it is one of the settlements where opposition to Sharon's plan is fiercest. Israel must also evict settlers from two settlements in the northern West Bank, Sa Nur and Homesh, which have attracted hundreds of outsiders opposed to the withdrawal.

The Israeli army had allotted up to a month to remove all the settlers. Now it appears that the operation could be complete by next week.

Yesterday's evacuations all followed a similar pattern. There were displays of compassion and resolve by Israeli forces mixed with settlers' screams, sobs and tears of defeat. Troops arrived at the gates of the settlements in an overwhelming show of force, flooding them with hundreds of soldiers and police who walked single file up and down the streets before going door to door.

In Kfar Darom, settlers greeted their evictors with heckles and insults, dismissing the troops as "criminals." Approximately 150 young protesters sang and chanted on the synagogue rooftop. Signs proclaimed "Jews don't expel other Jews." On the steps of the synagogue a man in prayer shawl prayed quietly to himself.

But the troops continued to arrive and began knocking on doors, negotiating patiently with families, urging them to leave.

At the home of Lillian Tal in Kfar Darom, police officers listened to the cries of her weeping family.

"You are supposed to protect," Tal, carrying a baby in her arms, shouted at a dozen police officers gathered at her front door. "What are you going to say next time you call your mothers, `Mom, I uprooted a 2-year-old girl today. I took a pregnant woman from her home?'"

"My house, my kindergarten, my dolls are here," screamed Tal's daughter Hannah, 13.

One by one, the settlers left, carried out to buses or walking on their own, leaving the synagogue as the final holdout.

For Gaza's settlers and their supporters, Kfar Darom has always held significance. It was started more than 70 years ago as a religious farming community and abandoned during Israel's War of Independence in 1948, when invading Egyptian troops seized it. After Israeli troops captured the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Middle East war, Kfar Darom was re-established as a settlement.

Signs throughout the settlement proclaimed: "Kfar Darom will not fall again."

But in the end it did. Late yesterday afternoon, after negotiations with the protesters failed, police moved in to force them out, climbing up ladders and getting doused with paint and other debris as they cut through barbed wire protecting the synagogue rooftop. Other police were hoisted in a converted shipping container to the roof, where they subdued the young men before lowering them in the container to the ground.

Police arrested 160 of the young protesters.

Israeli forces also evicted protesters from a synagogue in Neve Dekalim, the Gaza Strip's largest settlement. Hundreds of young men had barricaded themselves inside before police moved in and dragged them away by their hands and feet to waiting buses.

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