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.
"I just want to make sure it is dead, and to make sure the dead is buried," said Damari, 37, who, like many in the community, is a fisherman. "There was nothing in that spot but sand and rocks when I came here. I built my house with my own hands, and I want there to be nothing but sand and rocks when I leave."
The settlements occupy roughly 20 percent of the strip, land that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas plans to place under the trusteeship of the Palestinian Authority. The government is considering housing, agricultural projects, industrial zones and tourist sites for the property once the Israelis leave.
The United States and its three partners in the so-called "quartet" seeking peace in the region -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- hope Israel's Gaza withdrawal, carried out without Palestinian concessions, will revive a moribund negotiating process. Meeting with Abbas Sunday in Gaza, C. David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said the evacuation would help push Israeli and Palestinian negotiators back toward the "road map," a staged plan to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel that is endorsed by the quartet.
"The United States views the Israeli disengagement from Gaza as an important opportunity to re-energize the road map, to take further steps forward toward a better future for Israelis and Palestinians," Welch said.
Harel said the military would likely be in the strip for another five weeks, supervising the packing of settlers' belongings and dismantling military posts, barricades, fences and anything else left behind.
It is uncertain how much resistance will be mounted in Netzarim, a settlement whose importance to Israel's future Sharon once equated with the metropolis of Tel Aviv. The streets of the settlement, which sits at the end of a long fortified road, were empty soon after daybreak Monday. There were few signs of people packing, but also no evidence of barricades or organized resistance.
About 100 families live inside the settlement, which sits alone in the center of the strip.
"They are brave people who together with us suffered terrorism," Harel said of the settlers. "Both the residents and us paid a price for remaining in Netzarim."
Special correspondents Samuel Sockol and Ian Deitch in Dugit contributed to this report.