Palestinians cheer Gaza pullout

Many joyful as bulldozers destroy homes of settlers

Israelis `were living on our land'

August 22, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT LAHIA, Gaza Strip - As armored Israeli bulldozers knocked down the walls of Jewish settlers' homes yesterday in Gaza, leaving three decades of Zionist dreams in the dust, Nidal Muhammed flashed a wide grin.

"The same bulldozers that knocked down our homes are now knocking down the settlers' homes," said the 19-year-old accounting student from the Palestinian town of Jabalia, north of Gaza City.

For Muhammad, Israel's withdrawal from the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip has turned his world upside down.

Many of the Israeli spy drones circling over the settlements in recent days have had their cameras focused not on Palestinians, as they usually do, but on the Jewish protesters who have resisted the withdrawal by setting fires, barricading themselves in homes and synagogues, and throwing paint thinner and debris at Israeli security forces.

On television, the images of wailing Jewish settlers leaving their homes that many Israelis found painful to watch have been cause for applause, cheers and tears of joy among Palestinians, even if they don't know whether the Gaza withdrawal will truly transform their lives.

But for Muhammad and several thousand Palestinians who filled a sandy square outside Beit Lahia's mosque last night to celebrate Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the uncertainties did not seem to matter.

By yesterday evening, Israeli authorities had evacuated all but one Gaza settlement, Netzarim, where the 400 residents will be evicted today. Bulldozers moved quickly yesterday to tear down homes in the emptied settlements of Nissanit, Dugit, Peat Sadeh and Ganei Tal, the Associated Press reported.

With the withdrawal from Gaza nearly complete and the settlements being razed, Israeli forces expect to turn their attention to two settlements in the West Bank tomorrow or Wednesday.

Israeli officials said 2,000 Jewish protesters, some of them armed, had slipped into the two West Bank settlements, the Associated Press reported. Israeli police and soldiers are preparing for more resistance than was encountered in Gaza, where the evacuation went swiftly and with relatively little violence. Officials said the army has tried to stem the flow of protesters into the West Bank, though the terrain was open and difficult to control.

In Gaza, the mood among many Palestinians was upbeat. Yesterday's rally included dancing, songs and Palestinian flags waving from poles and from the rooftops of homes and buildings surrounding the square. The event was chaotic, as scores of men with pistols and rifles wandered through the crowds, some creating disorder, others attempting to restore it.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had been scheduled to speak at the rally but canceled at the last minute, leaving the crowd disappointed and angry before organizers turned on music and let them sing and dance.

"I was never so happy as I am today," said Tayseer Moghat, a 40-year-old farmer who sat on a plastic chair in the shade reflecting on the events of the past week. "Now I hope to see the withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem."

Moghat has a personal reason for jubilation. His grandfather once owned two acres where the settlement of Dugit is now. Within a month or so, after Israel demolishes settlers' homes and dismantles its military bases in the Gaza Strip, the land will be handed back to the Palestinians and he will be able to reclaim his family's farmland.

"I remember it was planted with olive trees, figs, fruit trees," he recalled. "Then the army came and kicked us out."

Such memories make it difficult for Moghat to sympathize with the settlers.

"They weren't living on their land," he said. "They were living on our land."

A Bedouin farmer named Hinid Azama disagreed, saying that while he was glad to see the settlers go, he was moved by their plight.

"They were our neighbors. I feel for them," he said.

But Azama was a rare exception yesterday, with nearly everyone else scoffing at the onslaught of media attention the settlers have received while most of the 1.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza beside the settlers live in poverty.

"It was a play, played by the Israeli government and coordinated by the settlers," said Muhammad Al Masri, former mayor of Beit Lahia.

There are hopes among many in Gaza that the Israeli withdrawal from the settlements, which occupy about one-third of the territory in the Gaza Strip, will propel the Palestinians forward, politically and economically.

Much of that will depend on whether Israel lifts trade restrictions that make doing business in Gaza unattractive. An appliance salesman, for instance, pays less to ship a television from China to Israeli's port at Ashdod than to ship the television from Ashdod to Gaza City, about a 30-minute drive, because of customs, storage and other security charges.

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