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Israel begins forcible evacuation in Gaza
Updated: 2005-08-17 14:08

Hundreds of troops escorted by bulldozers marched in formation in the largest settlement in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday in what the army said was the start of the forcible removal of residents, AP reported.

Settlers set trash bins on fire outside Neve Dekalim's synagogue in an attempt to block the troops. Neve Dekalim has been the center of resistance, and hundreds of pullout opponents were holed up at the local synagogue.

Troops also marched to the entrance of the Jewish settlement of Morag, in southern Gaza, where they broke through a makeshift barricade of overturned garbage containers, shrubbery and rocks set up by settlers. Troops carried away some protesters blocking the entrance.

Israel begins forcible evacuation in Gaza
A settler refuses to let into his house a group of soldiers that came to appeal to him to leave of his own will, in the southern Gaza Strip settlement of Neve Dekalim, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2005. [AP]
"In this hour, our forces are entering Neve Dekalim and several other settlements," said the military commander of the Gaza sector, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel. "We will take this slowly. We hope that at the end of the day, we will still be strong."

Thousands of Jewish settlers and supporters defied the Tuesday midnight deadline to leave Gaza, pelting Israeli troops with eggs and stones and dancing around the Torah in celebration of their resistance to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's historic plan to disengage from the Palestinians.

More than 100 Israeli military vehicles left a huge staging area at dawn Wednesday and headed toward Gaza to forcibly evacuate those remaining behind, moving toward the main crossing point into the Gush Katif bloc of settlements.

The convoy was held up by about 50 anti-pullout protesters blocking roads between the Reim camp and the entrance to Gaza. Police and soldiers were cleared away the demonstrators, dragging them off the road.

Some 14,000 troops traveled to several settlements in what security officials said was an attempt to clear out the communities in just a few days, far more quickly than initially planned. The military planned to clear out at least seven of Gaza's 21 settlements on Wednesday.

While stiff resistance was expected in some settlements, residents of other communities were making last-minute arrangements for voluntary departure.

Settlers claimed about 2,000 people, most of them youthful "reinforcements" from the West Bank, were in the main synagogue at Neve Dekalim, the largest Gaza settlement, although the number appeared smaller.

Protesters were told over loudspeakers to assume their positions, indicating a plan of resistance had been devised. About 2,000 soldiers and police were already deployed in the settlement to haul out the die-hards.

Morag protesters used thick ropes to pull down large cement blocks that had been erected by the army to protect the settlers from Palestinian fire. The blocks were piled into the streets to impede the approaching soldiers.

There were some signs that resistance would be less stiff than expected. In Ganei Tal, some residents said they expected everyone to leave voluntarily by the afternoon. Security officials said the residents of Netzarim, a hardline settlement, reached agreement with the military to leave voluntarily next Monday.

As soldiers on Tuesday tried to persuade settlers to leave voluntarily, both settlers and soldiers were reduced to tears at times as they argued over the wisdom of abandoning Gaza, Israeli-occupied land for 38 years and the focus of deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.

One woman was overheard telling a soldier how her mother was forced to flee Nazi Germany. "Just remember that you are the evil one who is throwing me out of my house," the woman said, rebuffing the soldier's offer of help.

Moments before midnight, scores of settlers were in synagogues in several Gaza communities, dancing around sacred Torah scrolls. They waved flags and sang nationalist songs, protesting the eventual handing of the land to Palestinian control.

Israeli officials said about half of Gaza's 1,600 settlement families had left voluntarily. The army said it would continue to assist anyone who wanted to leave voluntarily, even after the deadline.

"I look with hope to the future, that the price we are paying ... will in the end bring about a positive change in Israel's situation," said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Earlier in Neve Dekalim, soldiers burst through the main gate to clear the way for about 120 moving trucks. Within hours, a crowd gathered and protesters threw bottles, eggs and stones, and set fire to garbage bins and tires. Smoke blackened the air. Police said four officers were injured — one by an unspecified liquid thrown in his face.

Settlers in several farming communities burned their greenhouses and homes rather than leave them behind. One man punched holes in the walls of his house with a sledgehammer.

Israeli authorities said once Gaza is cleared of civilians it will take several more weeks before Israel finishes dismantling military installations and relinquishes the coastal strip.

The fiercest resistance came from some 5,000 Jewish nationalists who slipped into Gaza in recent weeks to reinforce the anti-withdrawal camp. Police handcuffed several withdrawal opponents in Neve Dekalim, seeming to target the infiltrators.

Hundreds of opponents continued trying to reach Gaza, trampling over Israeli crops near the border to circumvent army roadblocks. Police had detained 830 people since Monday night trying to either enter Gaza or block roads to stop settlers from leaving, according to Israel Radio.

Sharon has said giving up any territory and taking down settlements is very painful, and this week's confrontations could bolster his argument that Israel is making a huge concession that deserves international recognition.

The military commander of the Gaza sector, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said the army had been working with the Palestinian Authority on the evacuation and "cooperation is very good." At Israel's request, Palestinian police dispersed several marches that were threatening to move toward Israeli positions, he said.

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