Hundreds of Israeli police raided a derelict beachfront hotel here Thursday and swiftly removed about 150 Israeli settlers who had taken it over in hopes of preventing a government-mandated withdrawal from the Gaza Strip scheduled to begin later this summer.
About 700 special forces policemen backed by hundreds of Israeli soldiers swept through the Palm Beach Hotel and evacuated men, women and children who occupied the buildings about a month ago. Settlers burned tires and a wood fence surrounding the complex of white, two-story buildings, abandoned during the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, that began in the fall of 2000. No casualties were reported.
Military officials then sealed off the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza to prevent more demonstrators from arriving. Many had threatened to do so before Aug. 15, when the evacuation of 8,500 Gaza settlers and about 700 people in four settlements in the northern West Bank is scheduled to begin. Early Friday, Israeli military and police officials lifted the entrance ban on nonresidents but sealed off the area to household items, construction materials and other equipment that could be used to block the withdrawal operation.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who says the evacuation is necessary to bolster Israeli security, later commended the police officers and soldiers who carried out the operation. A longtime advocate of Israelis settling lands taken in the 1967 Middle East war, Sharon said he made a distinction between the vast majority of the 240,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and "the extreme groups that try and impose fear on Israeli society and try to tear it to pieces by acts of violence against Jews and Arabs."
"We must leave Gaza in order to build Israel," Sharon said in a speech before a policy conference in Jerusalem. "There is a solution for everybody who wants. There is room for every one of the evacuees -- room in the country and a place in the heart."
Many settlers have come here from outside Gaza in the past month in the belief that God gave the lands to the Jewish people. One settler, nose to nose with a soldier after the hotel raid, shouted: "Be ashamed. You should not be expelling Jews."
In recent weeks, settlers have fanned out from the hotel to clash with Palestinians in the Mawassi district, set among rolling dunes and date palms along the Mediterranean Sea. Settlers shot and wounded a Palestinian man and in recent days have attacked Palestinians with stones.
Thursday's raid was prompted by an incident near the hotel Wednesday in which more than a dozen settlers stoned a Palestinian man as he lay unconscious on the ground. An Israeli soldier intervened to protect the man, who was taken to a hospital in serious condition. Israeli newspapers across the political spectrum used the word "lynching" Thursday to describe the attack.
The raid was directed against "a group of thugs who took over the hotel and houses," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, chief of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command. "We operated against this group as we had no alternative."
The raid, which started at 2 p.m., lasted about 40 minutes. Israeli authorities said that four arrests were made and that two companies of soldiers would remain at the hotel to prevent settlers from returning.
Meanwhile, Israeli helicopters fired at positions of the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah on Thursday near a disputed area along Israel's northern frontier. On Wednesday, one Israeli soldier was killed and five others were wounded by Hezbollah mortar attacks on posts inside the Shebaa Farms, a slice of land occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Hezbollah claims the land belongs to Lebanon, but the United Nations considers it part of Syria.
In Jerusalem, a Jewish extremist stabbed two men and a woman taking part in a gay pride parade, inflicting light wounds, police said. The parade had been banned by the city's mayor, but the country's supreme court ruled this week that it could proceed.