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Tempers flare on 1st day of Israeli pullout from Gaza

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—A day of angry shouts, tearful lamentations and burning tires ended Monday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attempting to soothe Israel as it moved toward the climax of its withdrawal from Gaza: forced evictions by soldiers.

"I understand the feelings, the pain and the cries of those who object," Sharon said during a nationally televised address. "However, we are one nation even when fighting and arguing."

His comments followed a scene once considered unimaginable: Israelis delivering to other Israelis eviction notices from a land Israel once hoped to absorb. Sharon, once a key backer of the movement to establish Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, has promoted the withdrawal from Gaza as a way to enhance Israeli security.

The first day of the nation's withdrawal from the overwhelmingly Palestinian territory unfolded in blistering heat with thousands of soldiers and police making their presence apparent, but bypassing some hotbeds of dissent and avoiding confrontation in others.

Nevertheless, settlers and their supporters protested the long-anticipated action, and issued pleas for reprieve and—when those failed—passionate condemnations of the soldiers and police officers.

Any Israeli who's still in Gaza on Wednesday is subject to forced removal by the 55,000 police officers and soldiers who have mustered in the area.

"Remember this, my son: You are being used, and you will not sleep well for the rest of your days," David Hoffman, 58, of Neve Dekalim, said as he buttonholed one soldier, part of a force that finally evaded the town's human chains, burning tires and barbed-wire barricades.

The largest of the settlements, with 2,500 residents reinforced by thousands of militant outsiders, Neve Dekalim emerged as a center of resistance. Nevertheless, trucks carrying 31 large moving containers rolled into the community late in the day.

One confrontation in Morag, shown repeatedly on Israeli television, climaxed in a tearful embrace between an army commander, Brig. Gen. Erez Zuckerman of the Golani Brigade, and one of his former soldiers, Liron Zeidan, who joined hundreds of other protesters in blocking the gate.

"Erez, I am not your enemy," Zeidan told Zuckerman. "I was an officer under your command. We are not your enemy."

The commander listened patiently, nodded, then hugged Zeidan.

"We all love you; you are part of us," Zuckerman said.

By the end of the day, the army served eviction notices in Morag, Elei Sinai, Nissanit and Dugit. Similar notices were delivered in the small West Bank settlements of Ganim and Kadim.

"The IDF (Israel Defense Forces, the country's army) and the Israeli police share in the sorrow and pain you are feeling and expressing," the notices said. "Nevertheless, we will see this mission to its end, while providing any possible help and assistance."

Government officials said they expected about half the estimated 1,700 Israeli families who lived in the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza to be gone by the 12:01 a.m. Wednesday deadline.

Two of the four West Bank settlements targeted for evacuation—Ganim and Kadim, each with about 170 residents—were empty of settlers by Monday night, Israeli officials said.

"The only way is the way out," said Eyval Giladi, the head of strategic planning for Sharon and a leading architect of the unilateral disengagement plan.

Sharon, the hawkish Israeli leader who unexpectedly pushed through the plan, acknowledged the pain and controversy. But, he said, withdrawing from a barren, crowded land teeming with Palestinians will serve Israel's best interests in the end.

"We are reducing the day-to-day friction and its victims on both sides ..." he told Israelis.

"The world awaits the Palestinian response—a hand offered in peace or continued terrorist fire. To a hand offered in peace, we will respond with an olive branch. But if they choose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever."

In Gaza City and other Palestinian areas, celebrations continued Monday. At one point, Israeli troops fired to deter hundreds of Palestinian youths who were marching toward some Israeli settlements, according to the newspaper Haaretz.

In Israeli areas, contrasts abounded as the disengagement operation slowly gained momentum.

The four communities in which Israeli troops walked door-to-door with eviction notices had been partially abandoned, so calm prevailed. Israel television showed soldiers entering a house in Nissanit and serving orders on settlers who appeared resigned to their fate.

The scenes were far more tense and potentially combustible in more militant communities such as Neve Dekalim and Ganei Tal, though the army decided on less provocative tactics there than had been anticipated.

Fearing fierce reactions, the military announced at the last minute that it would honor requests from five of the most entrenched settlements—including Netzarim and Kfar Darom—not to deliver the 48-hour notices.

Instead, satisfied merely to establish a presence, officers handed the notices to community leaders—or to no one at all.

Army officials said distributing the notices was optional and that the change in tactics wouldn't affect the timetable for withdrawal.

In Neve Dekalim, advance military units were met with burning tires, roads booby-trapped by bent nails called "ninjas" and large bands of tearful settlers and militant outsiders.

About two hours later, reinforcements arrived, including a bulldozer, a water cannon and four officers on horseback.

A long column of police officers in black jumpsuits shoved aside the barriers and lined the highway to keep it open. Protesters jeered. The officers stood their ground.

Addressing the crowd, Parliament member Hanan Porat aimed his remarks at the troops, referring to the action anticipated for Wednesday.

"If you do this, it will haunt you the rest of your days," Porat said.

Although the soldiers didn't try to enter through the main gate, a small contingent moved into Neve Dekalim through its adjacent industrial zone.

Tension was evident, but the mood wasn't threatening. West Bank settler leader Shaul Goldstein, however, worried that the situation could turn ugly Wednesday.

"When they come to force the people to leave, it will look totally different," Goldstein said.

Among the settlers who were packing to move were Hani and Yitzhak Zadok, residents of the community for 22 years. "We built our life here; now we must pack it," said Yitzhak, 60.

He told stories of Palestinian rockets that damaged his house. He showed the crater in his side yard where the most recent one fell at 4 a.m. Monday.

A few doors away, four police officers were at a neighbor's home. They didn't hand out eviction notices. Instead, they tried to talk to the homeowner, who raised her voice when she told them to leave.

The police took seats in the shade. They were surrounded by settlers, who used a boom box to crank up the sound. It played an anti-disengagement anthem.

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(Matza reported from Neve Dekalim, Nissenbaum from Shirat Hayamm and Merzer from Jerusalem. Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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

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