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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Ignoring Deadline, Thousands of Israeli Settlers Remain in Gaza - New York Times

Ignoring Deadline, Thousands of Israeli Settlers Remain in Gaza - New York TimesAugust 14, 2005
Ignoring Deadline, Thousands of Israeli Settlers Remain in Gaza

JERUSALEM, Monday, Aug. 15 - Thousands of Jewish settlers defied an Israeli government order to leave the Gaza Strip by midnight Sunday, and Israel's security forces were poised to evacuate the settlers and their supporters in a huge operation that has sharply divided the nation.

The pullout comes a year and a half after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for decades a leading advocate of settlement building, declared his intention to withdraw from Gaza. Mr. Sharon has argued that Israel can no longer afford the costs of maintaining 21 heavily fortified Jewish settlements in the coastal strip, and that Israel's security will be strengthened by removing them.

After nearly five years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting, Mr. Sharon's initiative marks the most important political development of recent years and is sure to shape future relations between the two sides.

If the Israeli withdrawal goes relatively smoothly, and if the Palestinian leadership can establish order in Gaza, it would increase the prospects for a return to negotiations. But if the pullout or its aftermath leads to further conflict, Gaza could represent an impediment to any future peace efforts.

A solid majority of Israelis support the withdrawal , according to dozens of opinion polls conducted over the past 18 months.

"There is no sense whatsoever to remain here," Shimon Peres, the deputy prime minister, told reporters on Sunday, during a visit with soldiers and policemen who were just outside Gaza, making final preparations the evacuation. "The settlements must be evacuated."

But a large minority has protested bitterly against the withdrawal, and thousands of Israelis have infiltrated the Jewish settlements in Gaza in a bid to undermine the pullout.

Of the nearly 9,000 settlers who were supposed to leave Gaza before midnight Sunday, half or more have remained, according to various estimates. That figure does not include the infiltrators, who are estimated to number around 5,000, according to the military.

Israeli security forces set up roadblocks throughout southern Israel to prevent additional protesters from reaching Gaza, and at midnight, they sealed off the Kissufim crossing, the main entrance to the Gaza settlements.

A barrier was lowered across the road, and a sign in Hebrew and English stated: "Stop. Entry into the Gaza Strip and presence there is forbidden by law!"

In the nearby settlement of Neve Dekalim, several hundred youths gathered at the entrance with the intent of blocking the military. They lit small fires and slashed the tires of one military vehicle, according to reporters at the scene.

In the Rafiah Yam settlement in southern Gaza, a resident torched his house, a minibus and a warehouse, Reuters reported.

"I don't want to leave anything for the Palestinians," said the resident, Yaakov Mazal-Tari. "They do not deserve it. I'm going to burn everything, and what I can't burn I will destroy."

Elsewhere, settlers said they were still hoping for a miracle.

"It's not too late, Mr. Prime Minister. You can stop the suicide train at the last minute before you destroy the Jewish nation," said Hana Barat, who lives in the hard-line settlement of Kfar Darom, in central Gaza, where residents have refused to leave.

Mr. Barat is confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed more than three years ago in a Palestinian attack on her car.

"Even though they will drag us from our houses, we win," she said. "After years of psychological warfare, of rockets and mortars, after losing our dearest friends, after all this we've stayed together, united, and united in our spirits."

While resistance to the evacuation is a certainty, it is not clear how intense and sustained the opposition will be.

The Gaza settlers are made up largely of middle-class families with children, and their resistance is expected to be mostly passive. Soldiers and police officers may have to drag them from their homes, but clashes are considered unlikely.

But some settlers could resist more actively. And the infiltrators, many of them deeply religious teenagers or young adults from the West Bank, are seen as wild cards and could be more aggressive in confronting the security forces.

The settlers have a two-day grace period - Monday and Tuesday - when soldiers and police officers will knock on doors and tell the remaining residents it is now illegal for them to be in Gaza. The security forces will assist in moving the settlers out of Gaza on these two days.

On Wednesday, the security forces, numbering more than 50,000, will begin removing the settlers and any other Israelis, by force if necessary.

The security forces have allotted up to a month to remove the settlers, though they are hoping it will go much more quickly. After the settlers are gone, the military will tear down their more than 1,500 homes. The Palestinians support the demolition, saying the single-family homes are not suitable for their needs, and will be replaced with apartment buildings.

Mr. Sharon describes the pullout as a unilateral Israeli action, and he refused to deal with Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died last November. But contacts between Israeli and Palestinian officials have increased in recent months.

Israeli and Palestinian security officers met on Sunday at the Erez crossing, at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, in hopes of avoiding any confrontations during the withdrawal. The Palestinians are deploying 7,500 Palestinian security officers to try to prevent attacks by armed Palestinian factions.

Gaza has been mostly calm in recent days. But a Palestinian fired on an Israeli military post at the Kfar Darom settlement before dawn on Sunday. An Israeli tank returned fire, but it inadvertently hit an Israeli armored personnel carrier, wounding five soldiers, the military said.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are both looking for a smooth withdrawal. Mr. Sharon wants to avoid the impression that Israel is retreating under fire, while the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, wants to demonstrate that the Palestinian authority is capable of maintaining order on the newly acquired land.

The 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza account for more than 99 percent of the residents, while the Jewish settlers account for less than 1 percent. Israel, which has occupied Gaza since capturing it in the 1967 Mideast war, controls about a quarter of Gaza's territory.

Israel delayed the withdrawal for three weeks so it would not take place during the annual three-week Jewish mourning period that commemorates the destruction of the two biblical Temples in Jerusalem. The Tisha b'Av holiday, marking the end of the mourning period, concluded Sunday evening. Observant Jews fasted from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday and thousands prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Temple.

The Israeli withdrawal is not unprecedented. Israel removed several thousand settlers from Yamit, in the Sinai peninsula, in 1982 after a peace treaty with Egypt. Mr. Sharon oversaw that operation as defense minister.

But the Gaza withdrawal has created much stronger domestic opposition, and is the first time Israeli is pulling back from land the Palestinians want for a future state. There is no peace agreement with the Palestinians, and Israeli critics say armed Palestinian factions will now find it much easier to launch rockets toward Israeli towns just beyond Gaza's perimeter fence.

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Kfar Darom, Gaza Strip, for this article, and Dina Kraft from Neve Dekalim, Gaza Strip.

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