Eviction Notices Are Served in Gaza

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip, Aug. 15 -- Thousands of Israeli soldiers entered Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip on Monday to deliver eviction notices to be carried out, with force if necessary, in the coming days. But a well-organized opposition prevented soldiers from entering some settlements and ended the day confident that it was still possible to block the Israeli withdrawal.

In a nationally televised address Monday evening, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said violence against Israeli settlers and soldiers in Gaza and the threat posed to Israel's Jewish majority by the fast-growing Palestinian population had prompted his decision to abandon communities he once championed.

"It is no secret that I, like many others, believed and hoped that we could forever hold on to Netzarim and Kfar Darom," said Sharon, referring to two of Gaza's 21 settlements. "However, the changing reality in this country, in this region, and in the world, required another reassessment and changing of positions."

The demonstrations in half a dozen settlements marked a slow, frustrating start to an evacuation plan Israeli officials hope to conclude within three weeks. Although government and military officials attached little significance to the resistance, the day pointed to a possible confrontation when the grace period for the settlers to leave on their own expires at midnight Tuesday.

The army managed to serve 75 individual eviction notices in three settlements in the north and handed the leaders of several others blanket orders for all homes to be vacated. Soldiers did not visit several notoriously defiant communities, where the young shock troops of the religious settlers' movement from the West Bank have encamped in recent weeks.

"This was a difficult day for all of us -- the evacuees, the evacuators and the public of Israel," said Eyval Giladi, Sharon's director of strategic planning. "We will be more decisive with the young infiltrators" in Gaza.

Army officials said the level of resistance was expected given the anger generated by Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza -- where 8,500 Israelis live among 1.3 million Palestinians -- after nearly four decades. The disengagement plan also calls for the evacuation of four smaller West Bank settlements once the Gaza withdrawal is complete.

A vocal minority believes that leaving Gaza without Palestinian concessions runs counter to Israel's security interests, while religious nationalists oppose leaving any land described in the Bible as part of ancient Israel. But there were signs Monday that many Gaza settlers were leaving on their own. Israeli officials said 31 moving containers arrived here in Neve Dekalim, the largest Gaza settlement, while residents of the northern community of Nissanit removed Torah scrolls from their synagogue and began dismantling it.

In his address, Sharon said, "It is out of strength and not weakness that we are taking this step. We tried to reach agreements with the Palestinians which would move the two peoples towards the path of peace. These were crushed against a wall of hatred and fanaticism. The unilateral disengagement plan, which I announced approximately two years ago, is the Israeli answer to this reality."

In the next phase of the withdrawal, the military will begin forcibly removing what will likely be several thousand Israelis still in the settlements, a prospect that disturbed some soldiers after a bitter day intended to be a final offer of help. After hours of scuffles, shouting and occasional fistfights, several hundred soldiers managed to enter only the edge of Neve Dekalim before officers decided against going in to serve eviction notices.

Young men in the knit skullcaps that are the trademark of religious settlers slashed the tires of army jeeps, sprayed dishwashing liquid on windshields to limit visibility and ripped out the radio of one military vehicle. Others locked arms in human chains, sang songs of love for the soldiers and delivered angry lectures to the mostly implacable young officers overseeing the operation.

Silhouetted in the middle distance, scores of Palestinians gathered along a ridge in the city of Khan Younis, watching the demonstration ebb and flow on what was reportedly the hottest day of the year. Rifle fire clattered regularly from an Israeli military watchtower nearby, and two shots that Israeli military officials said were fired by a Palestinian sniper cracked on the pavement among the soldiers and settlers.

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