Using patient persuasion and brute force, Israeli soldiers removed hundreds of residents from homes across the Gaza Strip's Jewish settlements Wednesday in a military operation that exacted a high emotional toll on troops and the settlers they came to evacuate.
Just after sunrise, columns of Israeli soldiers and police officers encircled many of the settlements in southern Gaza where about 800 families defied the midnight deadline for them to leave. The vast majority of soldiers were unarmed because of the nature of the operation, but they moved into six settlements in far larger numbers than in previous days to begin the most arduous phase of the Gaza withdrawal.
The first day of the forced evacuations encountered only scattered pockets of resistance across the settlements. Israeli military officials said they managed to clear five of the six settlements where opposition was strongest, evacuating an estimated 400 families, while making steady progress here in Neve Dekalim, the largest community, where resistance has been stiff. Senior military officers predicted that most of Gaza's 21 settlements would be empty by Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when the operation will pause.
"I'm appealing to everyone: Don't attack the men and women in uniform," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said hours after troops entered the settlements. "Don't accuse them. Don't make it harder for them. Don't harm them. Attack me. I am responsible for this -- attack me."
But the events here rippled across Israel and the West Bank at a time of national debate over the shape and political future of the Jewish state once the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war, is complete.
In an attack that Israeli military officials said was intended to undermine the Gaza withdrawal, an Israeli settler shot and killed three Palestinians and wounded two others near the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, about 17 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Israeli officials said Asher Weissgan, 38, who makes his living driving Palestinian workers into the industrial zone on the edge of Shiloh, stabbed a guard, stole the man's rifle and shot his two Palestinian passengers before opening fire inside the industrial zone and killing a third man.
Hours earlier, a woman from the settlement of Qedumim, one of four small West Bank settlements scheduled for evacuation following the Gaza withdrawal, set herself on fire near the town of Netivot, about five miles east of the Gaza Strip. The woman, identified as Yelena Bovilav, 54, was listed in serious condition.
After a painstakingly slow start, Israeli officials said soldiers evacuated 583 homes, synagogues and other buildings in the Gaza settlements, approximately a quarter of the total. Soldiers loaded the evacuees onto dozens of rented tour buses, sending them out of territory as part of a withdrawal that the Bush administration hopes will revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In at least three settlements, final-hour talks between military officials and settler leaders led to the voluntary departure of all residents. The communities of Bedolah and Morag, where 60 people who had been holding out in the synagogue were carried out by Israeli police, sat empty by the end of the day. Tel Qatifa and Ganei Tal also had been vacated entirely, military officials said.
But no agreement could be reached in several other settlements, including this one where hundreds of young people have taken refuge in the community's largest synagogue. In Kerem Atzmona, where swastikas painted on the sides of some homes greeted soldiers, troops kicked down the doors of about a half dozen homes after talks to evacuate its 300 people collapsed. By the end of the day, the settlement was empty.
"We expected a difficult mission, and this is what is happening," said Brig. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, the army's deputy chief of staff, on a visit to Kerem Atzmona, where he was heckled. "We hope the evacuation will not have to be forceful, but we will use force if necessary."
Sharon, a chief architect of the settlement movement, has said he is evacuating Gaza to give Israel more defensible borders and protect the viability of its Jewish majority from a fast-growing Arab population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Gaza, where 8,500 Jewish settlers have lived amid 1.3 million Palestinians, is envisioned as part of a future Palestinian state that would also include the West Bank.
But Sharon's plan has generated enormous opposition from a religious-nationalist movement whose adherents believe it is wrong to relinquish land described in the Bible as part of Israel. In addition, many secular Israelis contend that giving up Gaza without Palestinian concessions sends a message of weakness to radical Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.
The Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose mainstream Fatah movement has lost political ground to Hamas, also fears that the Islamic movements that refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist may benefit from the perception that their rocket attacks and suicide bombings helped drive out the Israeli army.
In a news conference Wednesday in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal vowed to continue the group's armed campaign against Israel once the evacuation is complete. Mashal usually speaks from Damascus, the Syrian capital, but he said he chose Beirut to deliver his remarks to emphasize that guerrilla attacks also drove Israel out of Lebanon five years ago without a peace agreement.
"The weapon of the resistance is a legitimate one," Mashal said, referring to Hamas's military wing. "The departure of the enemy from Gaza does not mean the end of the occupation. So the resistance will continue."
Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, staged a celebration of Israel's evacuation at the sea off Gaza City. Roughly 40 boats bobbed off the coast bearing the group's trademark black flag, while 300 masked gunmen paraded in military formation on the beach.
"Our enemy should understand that the state of Palestine is not Gaza," said Abu Walid, a senior Islamic Jihad commander. "It's from the river to the sea."
In the settlements where opposition to the evacuation runs deepest, residents used Holocaust imagery to demoralize soldiers. Some here in Neve Dekalim and in Kerem Atzmona wore orange Star of David emblems on their clothing, recalling the yellow stars the Nazis required Jews to wear.
Amid the taunts and prayers, soldiers appeared uncertain at times about how to carry out their mission. Some broke down weeping as they worked to evacuate houses in front of angry, surging crowds. "We're trying to do this with patience, gently," said Maj. Dov Godinger of the Shachar Battalion, one of the units working inside this settlement. "We could have this place evacuated in 10 minutes if we used all of our force. But we are trying to do this as carefully as possible, giving everyone a chance to get out on their own."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Kerem Atzmona contributed to this report.