West Bank settlements cleared

Settlers, protesters offer minimal resistance to Israeli forces

August 24, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli police and soldiers armed with bulldozers, cranes and riot gear forced out hundreds of extremists who had barricaded themselves inside homes, a synagogue and an old British fort in two West Bank settlements yesterday, completing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Israeli authorities had worried that they would encounter stiff resistance, even armed conflict, from many of the 9,000 settlers and thousands more protesters who had infiltrated the settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank to oppose Sharon's plan.

But the showdown everyone expected never materialized as protesters proved more of a nuisance than a threat. Instead of facing a barrage of bullets in the West Bank settlements of Sanur and Homesh yesterday, as Israeli forces feared, they dodged a hail of human waste, vinegar, paint, tomatoes, flour and other debris thrown by protesters.

Likewise, the Palestinian security forces dispatched to protect the settlements kept their promise not to allow Palestinian militants to shower the Israeli forces and settlers with rockets and mortar shells.

The evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza, plus the two yesterday in the West Bank and two others that were voluntarily abandoned earlier, was expected to last three weeks but was wrapped up in one week.

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said that during the weeklong operation more than 15,000 people were removed from the 25 evacuated settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and of those there were 6,000 nonresidents who had come to protest the withdrawal.

"It was faster than planned," he said, adding that the settlers didn't choose to resist the evacuation "when it was clear that the force that was built was powerful and intended to fulfill its task."

In each settlement, Israel authorities dispatched an overwhelming force, flooding the streets of the tiny communities with thousands of unarmed police and soldiers who went door to door, urging families to leave. When they refused, troops moved in and carried them away to waiting buses.

In Sanur, forces used circular saws to cut open the iron doors of an old British fortress to evict dozens of protesters before using a crane and a shipping container to storm the building's rooftop and clear out about 80 people.

One soldier was stabbed in her arm during a confrontation with one of the protesters, the Israeli army said.

In Homesh, troops used a bulldozer to tear away concertina wire protecting a house's roof and enable police and soldiers to flush out dozens of holdouts who were hurling down tomatoes, eggs and other debris.

In another house about 20 girls tied themselves to one another and hurled bags of human waste, oil, vinegar and eggs at the police officer who arrived to evacuate them, police said

Despite these incidents, the overall ease with which Israeli forces managed to remove all the settlers and protesters was significant because it dispelled many of the fears Israelis had about dismantling settlements.

Instead of sparking a civil war, as some Israelis had feared, the evacuation went ahead with few problems.

"It's the best proof for us that the evacuation of settlements is something that you can achieve," said Yariv Oppenheimer, spokesman for Peace Now, an organization that lobbies for the evacuation of all Jewish settlements.

Sharon is now likely to come under increased pressure to remove more settlements in the West Bank, where an estimated 240,000 settlers live - with more arriving every month - as he continues to expand settlement blocs there.

From December 2004 to last month, 6,000 new settlers moved to the West Bank, according to Peace Now's research.

"It's not a huge number, but it's still far from a freeze on settlement activity," Oppenheimer said.

Raanan Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, said the decision to remove four West Bank settlements as part of the withdrawal was done to show that Israel is serious about peace.

"It's an indication that Israel is also ready to make concessions in the West Bank," Gissin said.

"Gaza alone wouldn't have been enough in order to create trust," he said.

Gissin says Sharon is committed to removing 24 illegal West Bank outposts - small settlements built without government permission - since the prime minister took office in 2001.

"Israel will tend to the removal of the 24 unauthorized outposts," he said. "When we finish with the disengagement, the forces will be released from this mission and we can concentrate on removing the outposts."

For the settlers, who have mounted a well-organized, aggressive campaign to derail Sharon's plan, the fall of the two final settlements was a clear defeat, although they defended their struggle as a just cause.

"No one thought from the very beginning we could beat the Israeli Defense Forces," said Benzi Lieberman, chairman of the Yesha settlers council, speaking on Israeli radio.

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