Settlers, Soldiers Clash in Synagogues

Settlers Gather on Synagogue Roof
Israeli settlers entrenched on the roof of the synagogue in the southern Gaza Strip settlement of Kfar Darom watch a crane lifting a cage loaded with riot police officers to evacuate them by force. (David Furst -- AFP)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 19, 2005

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip, Aug. 18 -- More than 1,000 Israelis made a defiant stand Thursday in the synagogues of two Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, confronting their own soldiers with rudimentary arsenals of household items in a final attempt to prevent their evacuation from land they believe was promised to them by God.

The standoffs came as Israeli soldiers moved swiftly to clear communities that have been most opposed to the Gaza evacuation. After a day of emotional encounters around kitchen tables and in places of worship, Israeli officials said 17 of Gaza's 21 settlements had been emptied, with agreements in place to evacuate two others.

In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the highly unusual military operation to end Israel's nearly four-decade presence in the coastal strip, Israeli troops stormed the synagogue in Kfar Darom over the course of a sweltering afternoon.

Using water cannons and cranes, Israeli forces broke through barricades of tables lashed together with rope, coils of razor wire and a hail of rocks, paint-filled light bulbs and what military officials said was acid thrown by scores of settlers holding out on the roof. Dozens of commandos, climbing ladders and being lowered onto the roof inside shipping containers, took more than three hours to clear the building.

"This was the most difficult place, no question about that," said Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official who was splattered with paint as he watched the scene. "But in the end it went faster than anyone imagined."

The fight for the synagogue was a riveting, emotional coda to the Gaza evacuation, if not the actual end of the mission that has involved more than 50,000 Israeli soldiers. Israeli military officials said about 200 families remain inside the strip, defying government eviction orders, but that figure does not include people who have arrived in recent weeks to strengthen the resistance.

Army officials said the operation will pause Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and conclude early next week. The Israeli military will then begin demolishing more than 2,000 homes and public buildings in the territory, where 8,500 Jewish settlers have lived among 1.3 million Palestinians in the years since Israel seized the land in the 1967 Middle East war.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, once one of the main supporters of settlement construction and expansion, has pushed the withdrawal plan at great political expense. He has said he believes that quitting Gaza would leave Israel with more defensible borders and a stronger Jewish majority, which is now threatened by the fast-growing Arab population in the territories. The plan also calls for the evacuation of four settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians envision as part of a future state along with Gaza.

But Sharon's strategy has embittered Israel's religious-nationalist movement, once a key part of his electoral constituency, and the confrontations in the synagogues Thursday further inflamed the relationship.

In Neve Dekalim, a settlement roughly five miles to the south, two columns of soldiers locked arms to create a path through the jostling crowd into the Great Ashkenazi Synagogue. More than 1,000 residents and recent arrivals from the West Bank had sought refuge in the stolid building as soldiers nearly completed house-to-house evacuations.

Just after 3:30 p.m., a group of teenagers poured motor oil and water over the long ramp leading up to the doors of the synagogue. A gray-bearded man emerged a few moments later carrying an Israeli flag, which he set on fire.

"Heil, Hitler!" he yelled, drawing scattered howls from the hundreds of onlookers gathered for the final showdown in Gaza's largest settlement.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company