Jewish Settlers Begin

To Pull Out of Gaza Strip

* Jewish settlers began a forced evacuation of the Gaza Strip yesterday, 38 years after Israel captured the coastal area from Egypt.

The 8,500 Jews living in 21 settlements have until midnight tonight to leave. If they don't, Israeli soldiers will remove them.

Their homes and synagogues will then be destroyed, leaving the land to the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. Soldiers also will move 48 settler graves to Israel and dismantle four small settlements on the West Bank.

The pullout marks the first time that Israel has withdrawn from settlements on land claimed by Palestinians as their homeland. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the move will improve Israel's security. Polls show that a slim majority of Israelis favors the pullout, but some vowed to resist, saying God promised the land to the Jews in the Bible.

"It's a painful and difficult day, but it's a historic day," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.

Palestinians have long fought the settlers' presence. Yesterday they celebrated an end to what they saw as an illegal occupation of Gaza, which is about twice the size of Washington, D.C.

Israel is paying the Gaza settlers as much as $400,000 per family to relocate. Two-thirds of the affected families have accepted the terms, an official said.

Israel is removing Jewish settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.Israeli general Erez Zuckerman, right, is ready to remove Jewish settlers from Gaza.