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Israel begins historic withdrawal from Gaza Strip

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—After 38 years of occupation and months of preparation and protest, Israel began its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip on Sunday by sealing the area and preparing to deliver final eviction notices to thousands of Jewish settlers.

Soldiers closed border crossings between Israel and Gaza at midnight (5 p.m. EDT) and police erected roadblocks on routes leading to the predominantly Palestinian region in an attempt to minimize demonstrations by Jewish opponents of the withdrawal.

It's now illegal for Israelis to live in Gaza.

Palestinians planted flags and deployed troops near some Jewish settlements, and called for the "liberation" of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Banners proclaiming "Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem" flew in Gaza City.

At the same time, thousands of defiant Israeli settlers and 5,000 supporters who flocked to Gaza gathered themselves for the next step:

The arrival at each door Monday of Israeli soldiers and police officers carrying written evacuation orders and offering to pack the settlers' belongings. The operation carries the title of "Yad Ahim" or "A Hand to Our Brothers."

Despite that euphemistic touch, tensions were high in Gaza and throughout Israel.

As the day ended, skirmishes between young resisters and a small force of soldiers flared in Neve Dekalim, the largest Israeli town in Gaza, with 2,500 residents.

Demonstrators punctured tires of military vehicles and looted at least one jeep.

Anyone still there or in the 20 other Israeli villages and towns in Gaza on Wednesday will be subject to physical removal by 55,000 Israeli soldiers and police.

Some police officers and soldiers reported receiving phone calls from as far away as the United States, urging them to disobey orders and not participate in the operation.

Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited a command center at the strategic Kissufim junction and urged the troops to remain resolute.

"Until now you have stood honorably in your task," he said, "and I am sure you will continue to act with restraint, devotion, politeness and courage."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other members of the government say the unilateral disengagement from Gaza is necessary to maintain Israel's security and its hold on much of the West Bank. Critics call it a surrender to Palestinian attacks.

Interviewed Sunday night by Israeli television, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Israelis had "chosen the right path."

"Don't listen to the voices of the extremists, who want a continuation of the occupation," he said. "I don't want and I will not accept any clashes with the (Israeli) army or the settlers."

As of Sunday, 1,127 of the estimated 1,700 Israeli families who lived in Gaza had applied for government compensation, according to Israeli officials, signaling some readiness to leave.

Many settlers have left already or are expected to mount only symbolic opposition, but authorities expect confrontations later this week with resisters and some of the militant, mostly young Israelis who've traveled to the region in recent days.

"Monday and Tuesday are the days that will give us a clear picture of the level of opposition we will face," said Moshe Karadi, the chief of Israel's national police force.

"In any case, we, along with the (army), are prepared for the worst case."

Less than an hour after Israel sealed off the Gaza Strip at midnight, hundreds of activists flooded out of Kfar Darom, a hotbed of opposition in the main settlement region of Gush Katif, marched a half mile to the main highway into the Gaza Strip settlements and briefly blocked the road before returning to prepare for their final stand later Monday morning.

Throughout the region, a sense of heightened expectation materialized and emotional scenes unfolded.

At a Jewish cemetery near Neve Dekalim, where 48 graves must be exhumed and the bodies re-interred inside Israel, relatives of the dead threw themselves atop tombstones and wailed. Others stood together as families recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Eventually, the small, sandy cemetery filled up with about 1,500 mourners amid the creepy whir of media cameras.

In a passionate statement delivered beneath a black umbrella opened to block the fierce sun, Yosef Elnekavah, the chief rabbi of Neve Dekalim, appealed to the souls of these dead to pray for the settlers.

"We were always with you when you were here," he said. "Now we need you to open the gates of heaven" and intercede with God "to stop this evil evacuation."

Then, he led the group in a series of prayers. Men in sunhats rocked forward and back in prayer, crying into their hands as they prayed. Women stood separately, many also in tears.

While the centers of resistance in Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom, with 365 residents, were busy with preparations, other nearby settlements were nearly deserted.

In the coastal village of Peat Sadeh, where the community reached an early deal with the government and moved en masse last week to a kibbutz inside Israel, a children's playground lay in ruin.

An abandoned baby stroller blocked the entrance to a two-story house cleared of everything valuable, as if looters had stripped the place. A bedroom door swung open and slammed shut with the afternoon breeze.

A few minutes south in Rafiah Yam, piles of red tomatoes baked on the dirt in the desert heat outside abandoned greenhouses. Rows of neglected squash plants tied to strings were withered and brown.

A line of 18-wheel moving trucks idled in Morag, which may be one of the first settlements to be shut. Though a small tent camp has risen near the houses, the settlement appeared quiet.

On the other side of the divide, the Palestinian Authority, locked with more militant forces in a battle for support of the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, began deploying as many as 7,500 security personnel around the Israeli settlements.

Their mission: prevent Palestinian attacks that could sabotage the withdrawal. It could be a challenge.

Early Sunday, Palestinian gunmen fired on Kfar Darom. An Israeli tank returned fire at one assailant, but accidentally hit an Israeli vehicle. Five soldiers were wounded.

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(This report was written by Knight Ridder correspondent Martin Merzer, who reported from Jerusalem with Knight Ridder correspondent Cliff Churgin.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-GAZA

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