Israeli Army troops using a huge pile-driving machine punched a hole through the thick walls of a bomb shelter in the nearly destroyed town of Yamit today and forcibly removed the last nationalist holdouts who had barricaded themselves inside to protest Sunday's scheduled turnover of the remaining third of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.
According to reports from Israeli and foreign journalists in Yamit, 11 members of the militant Jewish Defense League, including its leader, U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, were dragged out of the underground bunker and driven away in police vans as explosions ripped through the Mediterranean seaside town, where Army sappers continued blowing up buildings that the dozens of bulldozers here were not able to raze.
Another 20 nationalists, most of them university students, were picked off the top of a 100-foot-high 1967 war memorial spire with the aid of a construction crane, Israeli radio reports said.
Helmeted troops wearing flak jackets stormed into the bunker, through coils of barbed wire and other makeshift obstacles, and arrested three women and eight men who had been holed up for several days. Kahane entered the bunker Wednesday after the holdouts agreed to drop their suicide threat.
Israeli authorities agreed on Wednesday to let the protesters in Kahane's group stay until Sunday, but the agreement broke down later and the Army announced yesterday that they would be evicted today.
Authorities said there was a short scuffle inside the bunker but that there were no injuries. The women were screaming and struggling as they were led away, reports from the scene said.
By nightfall, only 50 supporters of the Stop the Sinai Withdrawal movement remained in Yamit, with the agreement of the Israeli authorities, and most of the town that once was home to 2,000 settlers had been reduced to rubble.
There still has been no official explanation by the Israeli government of why the authorities decided to level the town, for which the Egyptian government was reported to have offered $47 million.
The town was originally designed to be a buffer between the Sinai and the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, and there has been speculation that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon ordered it destroyed because he did not want a large concentration of Egyptians close to the Gaza border, which in the past has posed security problems because of the smuggling of weapons to Palestinian terrorists.
Brig. Gen. Chaim Erez, chief of the Army's southern command, said 1,300 protesters had been removed from Yamit in an operation that began Wednesday. About 5,000 troops were involved in the evacuation.
The assault on the bomb shelter, where Jewish Defense League holdouts had threatened to commit suicide one by one on Wednesday if the withdrawal was not halted, began at noon when a bulldozer unsuccessfully attempted to punch through a heavy steel door that had been welded shut from the inside by the protesters.
Three times the assault team connected chains to the door and tried to pull it open with a bulldozer, but each time the chain broke. Finally, a large, tracked pile driver was moved up to the bunker to punch a hole in the concrete wall.
Although the ruins of Yamit were virtually deserted, there were reports that some settlers were infiltrating back into the northern Sinai. The Army command announced that all civilians must leave the northern Sinai by 2 p.m. Saturday, and that all military personnel will be out by noon Sunday.