Gaza Evacuations Suspended for Sabbath

A weeping settler clings to a case containing Torah scrolls as Israeli security forces clear the synagogue in Gadid.
A weeping settler clings to a case containing Torah scrolls as Israeli security forces clear the synagogue in Gadid. (By Tsafrir Abayov -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 20, 2005

JERUSALEM, Aug. 19 -- The Israeli military cleared the community of Gadid early Friday, then suspended the evacuation of the few remaining Gaza settlements for the Jewish Sabbath after days of an emotionally trying operation.

A day after breaking the stiffest resistance of the Gaza withdrawal, soldiers used bulldozers to clear barricades at the entrance of Gadid, a farming community that was virtually abandoned when the operation began. But hundreds of evacuation opponents from outside Gaza had occupied the empty homes in recent days.

Soldiers were greeted by taunts and a hail of wooden blocks thrown from rooftops. A woman suffered moderate injuries when she slipped off a roof from where she had been dousing the street with cooking oil, a tactic used by opponents to impede soldiers' progress. Israeli military officials said she was taken to a hospital and treated.

After several hours, Israeli soldiers had detained 300 people from outside Gaza -- including 50 demonstrators removed from the community synagogue -- and put them on buses headed out of the strip.

"On the whole, the evacuation was fairly peaceful," said an Israeli military spokesperson, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

Only a few of Gaza's 21 Jewish settlements remain to be evacuated, and Israeli military officials said they expect them to be cleared by early next week in the first phase of an operation to end Israel's nearly four-decade presence in the territory. Israel occupied Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war, and in recent years 8,500 Jewish settlers have lived there under military protection amid 1.3 million Palestinians.

The operation has proceeded far more swiftly than Israeli officials initially predicted, hindered by only a few pockets of intense resistance. That resistance has come mostly in settlements where Israelis from the West Bank have arrived to strengthen the Gaza opposition. After the operation is complete, Israeli soldiers are scheduled to clear four small settlements in the northern West Bank, and opponents fear more may follow.

A dozen Gaza settlements have been cleared, searched and secured by troops. At least five others are empty and awaiting searches, Israeli military officials said. Many of the remaining settlers, whom the government is compensating for their homes and businesses, have reached agreements with the military to pack up and leave.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, once a political sponsor of the settlement movement, has argued that leaving Gaza will improve Israel's security and strengthen its Jewish majority, now threatened by the fast-growing Arab population in the territories. At the same time, Sharon has insisted that Israel will not relinquish its largest settlement blocs in the West Bank. Palestinians envision Gaza and the West Bank as composing their future state, with Jerusalem as the capital.

"This exit of the settlers is one of the fruits of your sacrifices," the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Friday at a raucous twilight rally in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah. "This step is only the first step that will be completed in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. But the step has come as a result of patience and sacrifices of our people, of martyrs, of wounded, of houses destroyed. All of those have brought us the fruit we are celebrating today."

After the settlement buildings are empty, the Israeli military will raze the structures and haul out much of the rubble. Defense Ministry officials say it will likely be a month before the property is turned over to the Palestinian Authority. Israeli troops will remain in the area until then.

Israeli bulldozers dug trenches Friday along the borders of the settlements to keep people from entering before the government takes over, according to a Defense Ministry official.

Also Friday, the military removed bomb shelters attached to nine evacuated houses in the settlement of Kerem Atzmona before beginning demolition. The bomb shelters will be reused, Defense Ministry officials said, and the few houses remaining in the community will be razed next week.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company