More than 1,000 Israelis made a defiant stand Thursday in the synagogues of two Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, confronting their own soldiers with rudimentary arsenals of household items in a final attempt to prevent their evacuation from land they believe was promised to them by God.
The standoffs came as Israeli soldiers moved swiftly to clear communities that have been most opposed to the Gaza evacuation. After a day of emotional encounters around kitchen tables and in places of worship, Israeli officials said 17 of Gaza's 21 settlements had been emptied, with agreements in place to evacuate two others.
In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the highly unusual military operation to end Israel's nearly four-decade presence in the coastal strip, Israeli troops stormed the synagogue in Kfar Darom over the course of a sweltering afternoon.
Using water cannons and cranes, Israeli forces broke through barricades of tables lashed together with rope, coils of razor wire and a hail of rocks, paint-filled light bulbs and what military officials said was acid thrown by scores of settlers holding out on the roof. Dozens of commandos, climbing ladders and being lowered onto the roof inside shipping containers, took more than three hours to clear the building.
"This was the most difficult place, no question about that," said Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official who was splattered with paint as he watched the scene. "But in the end it went faster than anyone imagined."
The fight for the synagogue was a riveting, emotional coda to the Gaza evacuation, if not the actual end of the mission that has involved more than 50,000 Israeli soldiers. Israeli military officials said about 200 families remain inside the strip, defying government eviction orders, but that figure does not include people who have arrived in recent weeks to strengthen the resistance.
Army officials said the operation will pause Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and conclude early next week. The Israeli military will then begin demolishing more than 2,000 homes and public buildings in the territory, where 8,500 Jewish settlers have lived among 1.3 million Palestinians in the years since Israel seized the land in the 1967 Middle East war.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, once one of the main supporters of settlement construction and expansion, has pushed the withdrawal plan at great political expense. He has said he believes that quitting Gaza would leave Israel with more defensible borders and a stronger Jewish majority, which is now threatened by the fast-growing Arab population in the territories. The plan also calls for the evacuation of four settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians envision as part of a future state along with Gaza.
But Sharon's strategy has embittered Israel's religious-nationalist movement, once a key part of his electoral constituency, and the confrontations in the synagogues Thursday further inflamed the relationship.
In Neve Dekalim, a settlement roughly five miles to the south, two columns of soldiers locked arms to create a path through the jostling crowd into the Great Ashkenazi Synagogue. More than 1,000 residents and recent arrivals from the West Bank had sought refuge in the stolid building as soldiers nearly completed house-to-house evacuations.
Just after 3:30 p.m., a group of teenagers poured motor oil and water over the long ramp leading up to the doors of the synagogue. A gray-bearded man emerged a few moments later carrying an Israeli flag, which he set on fire.
"Heil, Hitler!" he yelled, drawing scattered howls from the hundreds of onlookers gathered for the final showdown in Gaza's largest settlement.
Soldiers formed the safe passage to the doors of the synagogue, and soon troops were hustling up the ramp. The synagogue's loudspeaker, which has served as a public address system for the resistance in recent days, crackled. "Woe to you, woe to your souls if you come into God's house," the announcer said.
Inside, Israeli troops found hundreds of men and women lying on the floor between prayer desks in what one soldier described as "a carpet of people all yelling and screaming." One by one, soldiers began carrying the people out.
"If this had happened in any other country, they would call it anti-Semitism," said Eran Tamir, a rabbi inside the Gaza settlements.
Just after sundown, more than 1,000 Israelis had been removed from the synagogue, and the soldiers and settlers inside joined together for evening prayer. Many of them wept openly, then kissed the ark that holds the Torah scrolls. A police commander then ordered everyone to leave.
"Nothing will be the same in this country after this," said Ronit Sarai, 19, who arrived more than a week ago from the northern Israeli city of Haifa. "The nation has taken sides. They have made decisions about who they are for and who they are against."
In Kfar Darom, a few hours after sunrise Thursday, hundreds of soldiers entered the front gate of the settlement, bordered closely by Palestinian villages just beyond its tall walls. The arrival marked the first time since the start of the evacuation that Israeli soldiers have had contact with the community, which earlier this week turned away troops trying to serve eviction notices. The settlement is known as perhaps the most ideological in Gaza, and the 65 families who live along its handful of streets have expressed strident views, hardened by what they describe as living on the front-lines of Israel's conflict for decades. The residents have been bolstered in recent weeks by the arrival of hundreds of young people from the West Bank who have been living in rows of tents strung up on an empty lot near the entrance.
In the shade of a tarp, a group of soldiers slumped on the grass outside the Ben-Pazi home. Amid bicycles with training wheels and racks of drying laundry, the troops waited for nearly three hours for the family of 10 to finish a final lunch of couscous, potatoes and salad. Red and blue balloons dangled across the dining room, party favors from Emunah Ben-Pazi's first birthday party held earlier in the day.
"Eat now because on the bus there won't be much," Braha Ben-Pazi, a teacher, told the eight children seated around the table.
"God willing we will stay in Kfar Darom," her husband, Bentzi, 35, a rabbi, corrected her. "We have promised our daughter she will be here on her second birthday."
But the soldiers' patience wore out, and soon, groups of them were carrying the family out one by one, many of them kicking and screaming. The 50-yard walk to the waiting bus took 20 minutes to make for soldiers carrying several of the children.
For much of the day, the nearly 100 people on top of the synagogue roof rained paint, eggs and plastic bags filled with milk down on just about anything important, from buses to army officers. A lone man in a prayer shawl sat praying at a card table in front of the main entrance. The roof was rimmed with concertina wire, a sign reading "Kfar Darom Will Not Fall Again" looming from a second-story terrace just below. The pledge referred to the small Jewish community that existed on the site until it was taken by the Egyptian army in the 1948-1949 war.
"You do not dare come forward, police, you do not dare," a voice over the loudspeaker taunted late in the afternoon.
Near dusk, an armored truck mounted with a water cannon pulled in front of the synagogue and was showered by paint. Firing jets of water along the roof line, the cannon brushed back the men as a column of black-clad commandos, armed only with shields, helmets and goggles, sprinted toward the front door. They seized the man praying, carrying him to a waiting bus, and toppled his table.
Scores of soldiers surged through the women's entrance to the synagogue. The floor was slick with thick oil. The soldiers began dragging out the people, kicking and shrieking, to waiting buses.
For several hours, soldiers cleared the first and second floors. Deployed on both sides of the synagogue were two cranes, each holding a shipping container with one side cut out and replaced with steel gates. Inside were roughly a dozen commandos, holding their shields to the doors against the rain of paint.
Many of the young men on the roof held wooden or steel rods to poke through a cage or tip a shipping container as it was lowered to the roof. Several attempts to do so were thwarted until dusk, when columns of soldiers leaned ladders against the roof from the second story and began climbing amid a torrent of debris. A blue-and-white stream of paint and water drove the men back.
But they moved forward again, pelting the climbing soldiers with cans of food, motor oil, sand and foam that left the some commandos looking like they'd been dipped in marshmallow. After 15 minutes, the first commando opened up a hole in the razor wire with bolt cutters, the containers landed on the roof and soon the settlers were overwhelmed.
More than 100 people were arrested and will face charges, Israeli officials said. More than 20 troops were treated in hospitals for slight injuries.
Soldiers stripped down and hosed in the streets after the operation, and the night turned quiet. Gaza's settlement roads were largely free of traffic, but hundreds of young people, lit by street lights, gathered near the Qatif settlement. They cheered next to two large signs as buses and military vehicles passed. "We will not forget, we will not forgive," one of them read.
The other held a simpler message: "We will return."
Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Kfar Darom and Ian Deitch in Neve Dekalim contributed to this report.