An Aug. 23 article incorrectly said that Bar-Ilan University is in the West Bank. The school has a branch there, but the main campus is in Israel. (Published 8/25/2005)
After the final prayer service inside a synagogue here, the Israeli military evacuated the last of the Jewish settlements in Gaza Monday as hundreds of residents poured into streets and moved slowly through the neighborhood under a blazing sun, shuffling, chanting and carrying aloft ornate Torah scrolls and a large menorah that once stood on the synagogue's roof.
Israeli troops encountered no resistance as they guided the settlement's roughly 120 families onto tour buses for a trip to Jerusalem to pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. The members of the last community to leave Gaza will live temporarily in a college dormitory in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
"I am not desolate, I am not without hope," said Shlomit Ziv, 35, a middle school teacher who had been rearing eight children here. "The eternal people, the Jewish people, have gone through very, very bad times. But we're here now with a state, a beautiful state that sometimes makes mistakes."
Netzarim's evacuation concluded the most difficult phase of Israel's withdrawal from 21 Gaza settlements. Speaking to reporters, Maj. Dan Harel, head of Israel's Southern Command, said: "Right now there are no Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. The only Israeli citizens are the security forces."
At dawn Tuesday at the remote small hilltop settlement of Sanur in the West Bank, which was already abandoned by its residents, 6,000 Israeli police and soldiers moved in with what commanders described as overwhelming force to eject hundreds of protesters.
Israeli forces initially faced less resistance than anticipated. One protester using a bullhorn urged soldiers not to carry out their orders, while others occupied the settlement's synagogue.
Israel officers warned that they would be more aggressive than in the Gaza evacuations because Sanur was entirely occupied by protesters who had gathered to make a stand against Israeli security forces.
"We want to finish it as soon as possible," said army Maj. Ran Zur, a company commander whose battalion had faced the toughest resistance last week from Gaza settlers.
"These are not people from here," said army Lt Gregory Asmolov. "They just came to protest. Some of them are even criminals."
In Gaza, the operation progressed swiftly after its first day, and for the most part peacefully. Israeli soldiers will likely remain inside the settlements for another five weeks, dismantling houses, military installations and other remnants of a nearly four-decade presence. The Palestinian Authority will then take control of the land, about 20 percent of Gaza's territory.
The withdrawal brought into sharp focus the deep ideological differences between Israel's national religious movement, whose adherents believe settling the territories is a religious imperative, and more secular political parties that have come to view Israel's presence there as a threat to security and the viability of its Jewish majority.
Officials said 1,500 Israelis, most of them from the West Bank, sneaked into Gaza in recent weeks to serve as the foot soldiers of the resistance. In the coming days, Israeli soldiers intend to round up anyone who may be hiding inside the evacuated settlements.
A community of comfortable stucco homes along suburban-style streets, Netzarim was the most isolated Jewish settlement in Gaza, where more than 8,500 settlers have lived over the years amid 1.3 million Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs committee in April 2002 that "the fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv," suggesting the survival of the tiny settlement was as important to Israel's future as its largest metropolis.
But Sharon's decision to leave Netzarim, as well as the rest of Gaza, underscored the toll that the nearly five-year-old Palestinian uprising has exacted on Israeli security forces. It is also a central part of Sharon's push to begin defining more defensible national borders without negotiating the terms with the Palestinians.
Fortified bunkers painted in pastel playground murals dot the settlement complex, which was draped Monday with banners reading "Netzarim Forever" in English and Hebrew. But Israeli officers said defending Netzarim required a battalion of troops, or 450 soldiers, for a community whose population numbers only slightly more than that. At least 17 soldiers have died while assigned to protect the settlement in recent years, Israeli military officials said, and memorials to them appear in the numerous grassy parks and playgrounds.
"They have needed so many troops to surround them, to shelter them for a long time," said Hagai Dotan, the police official in charge of the evacuation here.
Before the operation began around 9 a.m., bulldozers built new dirt berms between the Palestinian villages and the settlement to block gunfire. Additional tanks and armored personnel carriers were placed along the perimeter. A drone aircraft buzzed overhead.
At least two Israeli settlers, both grandfathers, have been killed here in recent years. But far more Palestinians living along its fortified perimeter fences have died, often in exchanges of gunfire at the treacherous road junction nearby.
"The government established this settlement, and at that time someone thought this was the right place for it to sit," said Col. Cobi Moise, 45, a reserve officer who has served frequently in Gaza. "Times have changed over the years, and now the same democratic government wants it out. It's a difficult place to live, a difficult place to protect -- for us and the Palestinians. If it wanted, the army could protect this place for many, many years. But this is not so much a relief as a release."
Unlike the vitriolic taunting seen in other settlements, children here passed out Popsicles to troops waiting to begin the evacuations. At other times, residents doused fires set by younger boys and scolded them for throwing rocks at military vehicles. The boys stopped.
Gideon Ehrlich, 66, is a volunteer social worker in the settlement. A retired professor at Bar-Ilan University in the West Bank, Ehrlich is a mathematician by training. His wife is a psychologist, and the couple has been traveling here twice a week for the past year from the West Bank settlement where they live to help its residents through the evacuation. Ehrlich said he had seen an increase in anxiety among the settlement's children and more frequent arguments among the adults.
"This is a defeat," he said. "It is the result of carelessness at the top."
But Ehrlich said the people of Netzarim would never have confronted the military. For this mission, Ehrlich pointed out, unarmed soldiers who formed the first line of the evacuation force wore blue vests and blue baseball caps, each emblazoned with the Israeli flag.
"They knew we wouldn't fight against them, but this is still a cynical use of this," Ehrlich said. The settlers "admire the state and the flag and believe the army is holy. Now they can't bring themselves to fight against it."
Correspondent Karl Vick in the West Bank contributed to this report.