Soldiers Use Force, Persuasion in Gaza Settler Evacuation
Thursday, August 18, 2005
NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip, Aug. 18 -- Using patient persuasion and brute force, Israeli soldiers removed hundreds of residents from homes across the Gaza Strip's Jewish settlements Wednesday in a military operation that exacted a high emotional toll on troops and the settlers they came to evacuate.
Just after sunrise, columns of Israeli soldiers and police officers encircled many of the settlements in southern Gaza where about 800 families defied the midnight deadline for them to leave. The vast majority of soldiers were unarmed because of the nature of the operation, but they moved into six settlements in far larger numbers than in previous days to begin the most arduous phase of the Gaza withdrawal.
The first day of the forced evacuations encountered only scattered pockets of resistance across the settlements. Israeli military officials said they managed to clear five of the six settlements where opposition was strongest, evacuating an estimated 400 families, while making steady progress here in Neve Dekalim, the largest community, where resistance has been stiff. Senior military officers predicted that most of Gaza's 21 settlements would be empty by Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when the operation will pause.
"I'm appealing to everyone: Don't attack the men and women in uniform," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said hours after troops entered the settlements. "Don't accuse them. Don't make it harder for them. Don't harm them. Attack me. I am responsible for this -- attack me."
But the events here rippled across Israel and the West Bank at a time of national debate over the shape and political future of the Jewish state once the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war, is complete.
In an attack that Israeli military officials said was intended to undermine the Gaza withdrawal, an Israeli settler shot and killed three Palestinians and wounded two others near the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, about 17 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Israeli officials said Asher Weissgan, 38, who makes his living driving Palestinian workers into the industrial zone on the edge of Shiloh, stabbed a guard, stole the man's rifle and shot his two Palestinian passengers before opening fire inside the industrial zone and killing a third man.
In another act of protest hours earlier, a woman from the settlement of Qedumim on the West Bank set herself on fire near the town of Netivot, about five miles east of the Gaza Strip. The woman, identified as Yelena Bovilav, 54, was listed in serious condition.
After a painstakingly slow start, Israeli officials said soldiers evacuated 583 homes, synagogues and other buildings in the Gaza settlements, approximately a quarter of the total. Soldiers loaded the evacuees onto dozens of rented tour buses, sending them out of the territory as part of a withdrawal that the Bush administration hopes will revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In at least three settlements, final-hour talks between military officials and settler leaders led to the voluntary departure of all residents. The communities of Bedolah and Morag, where 60 people who had been holding out in the synagogue were carried out by Israeli police, sat empty by the end of the day. Tel Qatifa and Ganei Tal also had been vacated entirely, military officials said.
But no agreement could be reached in several other settlements, including this one, where hundreds of young people have taken refuge in the community's largest synagogue. In Kerem Atzmona, where swastikas painted on the sides of some homes greeted soldiers, troops kicked down the doors of about a half-dozen homes after talks to evacuate its 300 people collapsed. By the end of the day, the settlement was empty.
Early Thursday, Israeli soldiers went into the settlement of Kfar Darom, where resistance has been intense. Police estimated that 300 people entered the synagogue to avoid arrest.
"We expected a difficult mission, and this is what is happening," said Brig. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, the army's deputy chief of staff, on a visit to Kerem Atzmona, where he was heckled. "We hope the evacuation will not have to be forceful, but we will use force if necessary."