Israeli Troops in Gaza Prepare To Clear Remaining Settlement

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 22, 2005

NETZARIM, Gaza Strip, Aug. 22 -- Israeli soldiers prepared to clear the one remaining Jewish settlement in Gaza Monday after moving quickly through a handful of communities Sunday, encountering light, mostly symbolic resistance from the few families and holdouts still inside.

Soldiers finished evacuating another six settlements, breaking through flaming barricades and enduring tearful pleas from residents in the north and south of the strip. The work left only this settlement, an isolated community hard hit over the years by Palestinian attacks, to complete the most grueling phase of the evacuation.

"It's only symbolic that this is the last settlement to be evacuated," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, chief of Israel's Southern Command, said Sunday evening. "Netzarim was attacked many times and has had casualties among the settlers and the soldiers who have protected them."

The operation to clear 8,500 settlers and more than 1,000 other Israelis who arrived to oppose the evacuation has moved far more swiftly than military officials had envisioned. Once projected to last as long as six weeks, the Gaza evacuation will likely conclude after only one.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who pushed the withdrawal at great political expense, praised the Israeli soldiers Sunday for their restraint and patience after days of taunts, attacks with rudimentary weapons, and difficult hours on doorsteps around the 21 Jewish settlements. But Sharon called "very serious" the more violent tactics of demonstrators who have arrived from outside the Gaza settlements, many of them from the West Bank, where the evacuation of four small communities is scheduled for later this week.

"Some of their actions could be defined as acts of hooliganism that bordered on the criminal," Sharon said before the weekly cabinet meeting, during which the final set of evacuations was approved in a procedural vote.

Sharon suggested that leaders of the settlement movement, which he supported strongly over the years, would come under investigation for their role in organizing the opposition. Harel said later Sunday that only 1,500 Israelis from outside Gaza managed to enter the strip in recent weeks, calling the figure of 4,000 infiltrators initially given by settler leaders an exaggeration.

"This reflects not only on them, but on those who dispatched them, incited them and handled them," Sharon said of the protesters and their scattered acts of violent resistance. "This was not done in secret, but in the open and it seems to me that we have not yet reached the end of the matter."

Israeli soldiers began the day Sunday in the settlement of Qatif, where military bulldozers had to break through a fiery barrier at the entrance. Only a few of the community's 74 families remained, some of whom had celebrated a bar mitzvah ceremony for a 13-year-old boy only a day earlier. Those still inside the settlement gates left with little resistance.

Synagogues were evacuated peacefully in Qatif and two other settlements, in contrast to the resistance mounted last week from the rooftop of the synagogue in Kfar Darom, the most violent incident of the operation. More than 20 Israeli soldiers were treated in hospitals for slight injuries following the operation, and more than 100 Israelis were arrested.

A small stage set greeted soldiers arriving in Atzmona, where Israeli military officials originally expected stiff resistance but met little Sunday. In front of one house, several cardboard tombstones stood in what was labeled the "Cemetery of the Oppressors." Among the mock graves were ones for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Adolf Hitler.

Israeli forces also began destroying homes Sunday in at least three Gaza settlements, the next phase in Israel's operation to leave territory it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. In the seaside settlement of Dugit along the strip's northern border, Nir Damari watched backhoes demolish the house where he has lived for a decade.

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