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Monday, August 22, 2005

Israel Withdraws Its Last Jewish Settlers From Gaza Strip - New York Times

Israel Withdraws Its Last Jewish Settlers From Gaza Strip - New York TimesAugust 22, 2005
Israel Withdraws Its Last Jewish Settlers From Gaza Strip

NETZARIM, Gaza Strip, Aug. 22 - After nearly 40 years of occupation, Israel pulled its last settlers out of Gaza today, leaving this symbolic and devout settlement, surrounded on three sides by Palestinians.

Under an agreement with the army and the government, the roughly 1,000 residents here, plus another 300 or so who had come to support them, left their homes without resistance. After a prayer service and ceremony at the synagogue, the residents said they would go to Jerusalem, to pray at the Western Wall, and then move all together to the empty college dormitories of the University of Judea and Samaria, in Ariel, another Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

But before the school year begins, they will move again, as a collective, to re-establish Netzarim, probably in the Negev, according to Shlomit Ziv, 35, a teacher.

But like all the residents interviewed here, Mrs. Ziv, a mother of eight children, is confident that her family will return to Gaza and re-establish Netzarim here, in what they consider part of the land of Israel given by God to the Jews.

"I'm absolutely sure that if I cannot live here, my children or my great-grandchildren will come back to blossom Netzarim," Mrs. Ziv said.

Netzarim means sapling or progeny, and Rabbi Tzion Tzion-Tawil, after helping to lead the prayer service of residents and soldiers, said: "We are leaving against our will, but we are not going out with heads bowed. The saplings that are being uprooted here we will plant throughout the country until we make our return to Netzarim."

But Netzarim has always been controversial, regarded by the Palestinians as "a bone in the throat," because movement in and out, along protected roads in armored busses, often interferes with Palestinian freedom of travel within Gaza as Israeli soldiers abruptly close checkpoints with no explanation.

The Israeli ability to cut Gaza into three parts through such measures was one of the strategic reasons in 1972 to build Netzarim, which prime minister Ariel Sharon once said was as Israeli as Tel Aviv. Netzarim, which became a center for religious Jews, also became a little romanticized in the Israeli psyche.

But the army spent millions to protect the people here, with at least 500 soldiers and a squad of armor always engaged, let alone the need to run the hourly armored bus service. Seventeen soldiers have died for Netzarim, and few army commanders, speaking privately, are not sorry to lay down the burden and costs of its defense.

Brig. Gen. Hagai Dotan of the police, in charge of the pullout here, is a practical man who acknowledges that the cost of defending Netzarim was very high. As for his own task, he said that some residents would be able to return on Tuesday to pack their belongings, and that there would be one more search through the settlement. "Tomorrow is clean-up day," he said, "to find the weirdos who believe the Messiah will come."

At least one resident had workers setting the foundation for a roof on a new house, which will be destroyed with everything else here, probably by the end of the week.

Israel's occupation of Gaza continues, however, with the military still in place, controlling Gaza's borders, seacoast and airspace and deciding who may come and go. Still, the Israeli military says it plans to pull out of its installations within a month, and from the border with Egypt by the end of the autumn. While serious issues of access of both goods and people remain to be negotiated, Palestinians will have considerably more freedom of movement within Gaza and will no longer have to stare at the huge concrete walls and watchtowers that encircled the settlements.

At least 5,000 soldiers and police officers traveled today to the northern West Bank, where four small settlements - two of them empty - will also be evacuated, probably beginning on Tuesday.

The other two settlements, Sanur and Homesh, are expected to be more difficult, with their few residents supplemented by West Bank settler youth who say they are eager to resist the army and the police and who have barricaded themselves in buildings and prepared makeshift weapons to repel security forces, just as in Kfar Darom. But those inside are reported to have more serious arsenals including stones, sharp metal projectiles, knives and stun grenades. Some may also be more heavily armed.

While Sanur boasts an old Ottoman jail and police station that will be difficult to storm, Homesh may prove to be the harder task, police officials say. They estimate that up to 1,000 people may be in the two settlements, most of them nonresidents.

Israeli political reaction to the Gaza pullout was heated, with settler supporters in Parliament accusing Mr. Sharon of being "an insensitive and obtuse liar, not fit to lead," according to Uzi Landau. Another legislator, Effie Eitam, who lived in Gaza, said: "The revenge you'll suffer will be political. The right will boycott you and bring you down."

Mr. Sharon, for his part, told soldiers on Sunday that he would continue to build within the existing settlement blocs in the West Bank, where Israel aims to keep three large settlement conurbations - Gush Etzion, Ariel and Maale Adumim - and that he would continue to try to link Maale Adumim to Jerusalem. The Bush administration has criticized such building as a violation of Israel's pledges under the road map toward peace.

Mr. Sharon, widely expected to move to the right before elections that could come as early as the spring, also pledged again that he would make no unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank. "There will be building in the settlement blocs," he said, according to The Jerusalem Post. "I will build."

In Gaza today, a missing French television journalist, Mohamed Ouathi, walked into a Gaza police station eight days after he was reported kidnapped at gunpoint by three armed men who forced him into a car. walked into a Gaza police station. No group had declared responsibility for the abduction.

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