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Friday, August 19, 2005

Soldiers Evacuate One of the Last Remaining Settlements - New York Times

Soldiers Evacuate One of the Last Remaining Settlements - New York TimesAugust 19, 2005
Soldiers Evacuate One of the Last Remaining Settlements

GADID, Gaza Strip, Aug. 19 - The Israeli Army and the police moved into Gadid this morning to evacuate about 10 families of the original 300 residents from one of the few remaining Jewish settlements.

They were removed together with dozens of protesters, some of whom took to the red-tiled rooftops of homes. Policemen had to climb on rooftops to pull them down as protesters shouted curses at them, and in some case poured cooking oil on the sloped roofs to grease the policemen's paths.

They took down the Torah scrolls from the synagogue around noon, and the operation, which went relatively smoothly, was effectively over.

This morning there were only about five or so settlements of the original 21 in Gaza to be evacuated.

Security forces evacuated about than a dozen settlements on Wednesday and Thursday, the two first days of the operation. Gadid was the only place where they went in fresh today.

The Jewish sabbath begins at sundown Friday, and there will be a be a break from that point until sundown Saturday. Evacuations will resume on Sunday morning. There is no official deadline for the operation to end, but it now looks, security officials say, that the evacuation from the Gaza settlements could be completed by the end of the day on Monday.

The military, however, says it will need another three weeks to pull out its men and equipment and to demolish the settlers' homes.

Palestinians will not be able to take over the area until a month after the civilians are gone, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has said.

On Thursday, security forces seized control of two synagogues in Kfar Darom, where hundreds of the most fervent and aggressive protesters had barricaded themselves.

This settlement, the oldest in the Gaza Strip and one of the most militant, produced scenes of violence and raw emotion that the Israeli government had wanted to avoid. The storming of the settlement's only synagogue was covered live on Israeli television.

About 160 young protesters, who had prepared themselves for assault with the advice of a reserve colonel, Moshe Leshem, held the unarmed police officers at bay for two and half hours at the synagogue. To take control, the police used a water cannon, fire extinguishers, cranes, wire cutters and special forces.

The protesters, who were mostly from outside Gaza, taunted the police and soldiers throughout the day, threw paint and eggs at them and continued to prepare for the siege they knew would come.

They secured the front doors with chains, put oil and grease on the floors and stairways to hinder security forces and ran razor wire around the roof, where they had equipped themselves with a portable toilet. They had sheets of metal to block water from the water cannon, and long wooden poles, with V-shaped prongs at the end, to push away the ladders of the police SWAT teams. They had buckets of oil and a caustic liquid, which the police say included weapon-cleaning fluid, to pour on police officers and large spray cans of insulating foam to obscure their vision.

The police special forces were dressed in black coveralls and equipped with visored helmets and riot shields, but they carried no weapons, not even nightsticks.

Breaking into the ground floor of the synagogue and removing the dozens of protesters there was relatively easy. But the real difficulty was on the roof. The police struggled for hours to place their forces on the roof, trying to maneuver two large metal storage containers full of officers, lifted on cables by two giant cranes, into position.

The containers, modified with wire doors, were targets for paint and other fluids, and the men inside quickly went from ninja black to ghostly splattered white. The containers were raised and lowered three times before landing on the roof on the fourth attempt.

Another contingent of police officers were repeatedly pushed back as they tried to scale ladders from the first floor balcony to the roof. Protesters poured oil and a blue acidic liquid on them and hit them with garbage, eggs, paint and spray foam.

Nearly all of the protesters were from towns in Israel and settlements in the West Bank. Many were here to visit friends and relatives and overstayed their visitor's permits, and others slipped past checkpoints in the trunks of cars, in moving containers or on foot.

Four hours after the first police advance on the synagogue, at 9 p.m., officers were still hauling protesters out and loading them on buses headed for detention. Forty-four police officers and soldiers were injured, nearly all of them lightly, Israeli officials said.

"What we saw here crossed all boundaries," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the senior Israeli commander in Gaza. "Everybody who was now on the roof will be arrested and put in prison."

Softer tactics succeeded at Gaza's largest settlement, Neve Dekalim, where about 600 protesters were carried out of the synagogue after three days of negotiations. Female soldiers dealt with the women, who clung to the pews, finally carrying some of them out of the building; the men inside had locked arms, making it harder to pull them away. But there was no violence, and by nightfall, the evacuation of Neve Dekalim was all but complete.

In larger terms, only 7 of the 21 Gaza settlements were not considered officially evacuated, an army spokesman said, and in 3 of those, in the north, residents had left voluntarily. The main tasks ahead are Netzarim, Atzmona, and Katif, the army said.

Israel had allotted a month to accomplish the evacuations of about 9,000 residents from Gaza and four small settlements in the northern West Bank. But with political tensions rising, including the resignation early last week from the government by Benjamin Netanyahu, the main rival to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the tempo has increased.

The killing of four Palestinians in the West Bank on Wednesday by a Jewish settler also contributed to tensions, with the man arrested for the killings, Asher Weisgan, offering no regrets. "I'm not sorry for what I did," he said Thursday before entering a courthouse outside Tel Aviv. "I hope someone also kills Sharon."

After Thursday's clashes between resisters and security officers, it appears that Gaza could be cleared of civilians by early next week.

The scene in Kfar Darom was reminiscent of the final withdrawal from Yamit, a settlement in the Sinai that was returned to Egypt in 1982 as part of a peace treaty. There, protesters clung to rooftops and were dragged into cages lowered from helicopters. Foreign Ministry officials said they had advised the police not to use cages this time, for symbolic reasons. But the analogies to Yamit were clear, even if the tactics were different.

Kfar Darom was first founded as a settlement in the 1930's, then abandoned. It was re-established in 1946, and then lost to the Egyptians in fighting in June 1948. Israelis remember the few survivors fleeing to save themselves. It was rebuilt again in 1970 as a military post and training camp. But it evolved into a civilian settlement, and became a focus for pious and patriotic Jews who believed they were defending land given to them by God.

The 500 residents, who suffered frequent attacks by Palestinians who live on all sides of the settlement, were united in refusing to negotiate with the government about where they would live next. They did not pack up their belongings and said Thursday that they did not know where they would go.

The Mizrahi family put a large red bowl covered with a cloth outside their door, with a sign advising: "Do not touch. Dough rising." Later in the day, they baked bread. But finally, a team of police officers and soldiers went to their house, and after three hours of negotiations - including tears, insults and agony from the family - the Mizrahis were carried out of their house and put on a bus.

Many people forced the police to break down their doors. At one house, distraught men and women sat against a wall, in a strip of shade, remonstrating and screaming at police officers who sat beside them. One man was crying uncontrollably, and a burly army major took tissues and wiped the tears from the man's face.

Another man screamed at a team commander for expelling Jews from their homes. The commander took him aside and finally said, "We the people have to go on, or we will be left with nothing."

Nearby, an Israeli ambulance stood idling. Writing on the door said the ambulance had been donated by French Jews in memory of a soldier, Alexei Nikov, "who gave his life 29 October 1998 to save children in danger of death in Gush Katif."

Laser Amitai was a policeman here. But he left the force when he decided to remain in Kfar Darom against the wishes of his government. Mr. Amitai lost his wife, Miriam, in a school-bus bombing in November 2000, early in the latest Palestinian intifada, and he is widely respected here.

On Thursday, his brother, Levi, an officer in the Border Police, came to persuade Laser to leave. The two men and their sister sat in the living room, talking quietly, hugging and crying. Laser Amitai said: "This is not about our house. We are here today fighting the battle for Zionism."

Steven Erlanger reported from Kfar Darom for this article and Greg Myre from Kfar Darom and Gadid. Dina Kraft contributed reporting from Neve Dekalim.

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