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Israeli troops move into Gaza Strip settlements as deadline expires

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—Israeli commanders adopted tougher tactics Tuesday as they began the most difficult phase of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza: the forcible eviction of stubborn settlers and their supporters, who set fires and stationed sentinels atop a synagogue Tuesday night.

After one day of indulgence and another of gate-cutting, muscle-flexing and sporadic skirmishes with protesters, tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers and police officers took positions overnight in and near Jewish settlements on the Gaza Strip.

Their apparent strategy: create a sense of unstoppable momentum as they prepared to remove Israeli settlers from more than a dozen communities, including flash points of resistance such as Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom.

With Israelis divided over the wisdom of withdrawing from Gaza without a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government have a great deal riding on how the evictions proceed. Pitched battles between settlers and Israeli troops and police, or a new outbreak of Palestinian violence in Gaza, could deepen the political divide in Israel and strengthen former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Sharon rivals.

The deadline for settlers to depart voluntarily passed at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday (5:01 p.m. EDT Tuesday). Any Israeli who was still in Gaza faced removal by the army and police. Many disheartened settlers trickled out Tuesday.

Nearby, Palestinian demonstrators marching in the streets claimed credit for forcing Israel's withdrawal and vowed to continue their struggle against the Jewish nation.

With the grace period for voluntary departure over, Israeli troops marched into several settlements and authorities warned that they were taking off the gloves.

"Operation Helping Hand has ended," said Brig. Gen. Dan Harel, the Israeli military commander of the Gaza Strip, referring to the gentle policy of persuasion that prevailed Monday.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said, "Whoever interferes with the disengagement, especially with those who want to leave voluntarily, will be arrested and dealt with by the law."

Still, Harel said the climactic phase of the operation would begin with final appeals for voluntary departure, first directed to the estimated 5,000 outside protesters, then to the remaining 3,700 settlers.

"We expect violence to be at a very low level," Harel said. "Talking will be the major tool in this confrontation."

Any physical action would wait until at least daybreak Wednesday, he said. Commanders hoped to complete the evictions of Israelis by Sept. 4.

As the night deepened, young extremists in Kfar Darom climbed to the top of the synagogue, one of the tallest structures in the village of 365 people. Others moved from tent cities into a school and the community's office building.

In Neve Dekalim, a town of 2,500 people, some young outsiders moved into synagogues while others ignited nuisance fires.

Some families reluctantly accepted the inevitable, leaving just before the deadline, each accompanied by five soldiers. They hugged neighbors, then picked up hand luggage and sometimes walked a gantlet of demonstrators who urged them to stay.

A few settlers in Neve Dekalim swung pickaxes, clubs and other heavy tools at their own homes, saying they preferred to destroy the buildings rather than take the chance that Palestinians would occupy them. Elsewhere, settlers set their homes ablaze as they left.

The Israeli government has said it will destroy every structure within all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and the four small communities in the West Bank that also will close. The Palestinian Authority has agreed, saying the buildings aren't appropriate for Arabs to use.

In Palestinian-controlled areas, more than 3,000 Hamas supporters and other militants in Gaza marched through the streets of the town of Khan Younis, chanting slogans that claimed their rockets forced the Israeli withdrawal. The crowd rallied within the hearing of residents of Neve Dekalim.

Speakers were surrounded by black-hooded gunmen.

"This is the beginning of the Muslims' victory," Ahmad Nemer, a Hamas leader, told the demonstrators. "We have liberated a small percentage of land, but Jerusalem and the West Bank are still occupied."

Sharon says the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will eliminate a persistent threat to Israeli security and allow the nation to strengthen its hold on parts of the West Bank.

His Israeli opponents call it a retreat under fire that could inspire a new wave of Palestinian terrorism, and they've fought it in the halls of government ministries, in the courts and now at the gates of the settlements themselves.

The platoons of outsiders, many from Jewish settlements on the West Bank and some from the United States, complicated matters for authorities and for some settlers, who wished to leave more quietly.

Most settlers in Gaza, however, cheered them on.

"They should do everything to try and prevent disengagement," Amnon Diter, of the community of Ganei Tal, said even as he prepared to leave Gaza for the last time.

In Neve Dekalim, Maria Steiner, 52, from Sacramento, Calif., explained why she was so far from home.

"I came here to put my body where my mouth is," she said. "Words can't describe how painful this is, to throw Jews off the land. The Nazis did this."

Several injuries were reported in Neve Dekalim during sporadic shoving matches and other clashes between Israeli authorities and the resisters.

The day began with police arriving in force and dismantling the main security gate. Then hundreds of officers and soldiers—determined to clear a path for trucks carrying shipping containers—pushed through a nearly equal number of protesters.

Some extremists tossed paint-filled balloons and, in at least one case, acid or another caustic agent at the authorities, sometimes hitting their own colleagues or journalists.

They also set fire to tires and vehicles. A police water cannon responded, only to be pelted by stones.

To protect jeeps and other vehicles from vandals, army officers positioned a soldier at every tire—four to a vehicle.

Police arrested about 50 people in Neve Dekalim, according to Superintendent Carla Oz, a spokeswoman for Israeli police. About 820 protesters had been arrested or detained as they attempted to reach the tense region, she said.

"We are making every effort so that anyone who wants to leave can leave," said Mofaz, the defense minister. "Moving trucks will be guarded and escorted up to the homes."

All day, convoys of flatbed trucks carrying huge containers to move settlers' household goods rolled into the Gaza Strip and fanned out across the region.

At least eight smaller settlements were all but abandoned.

In two smaller settlements, four residents set their houses on fire before pulling out. Families in Rafiah Yam held a farewell ceremony in which they carried venerated Torah scrolls.

The last few families in Elei Sinai, Nissanit and Dugit, largely secular and non-ideological settlements on the northern border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, left for new lives in Israel.

Just as authorities had feared, some settlers who reluctantly agreed to leave found their efforts thwarted or complicated by the young activists.

Shoshana Ben-Hayim, 53, a resident of Neve Dekalim for 22 years, hoped to send her belongings out Tuesday, then wait for the soldiers to arrive.

The tumult delayed the arrival of her moving van by at least five hours Tuesday. And someone punctured the tires of her daughter's car.

"I am angry about the extremists," she said. "The struggle is important, but there is a law you have to obey in a democracy.

"To leave this place, it is difficult. But these people don't help me. They make it much more difficult."

The departures left behind only the most ardent opponents of Israel's plan to abandon the occupied territory and turn over control to the Palestinians.


(Matza, in Neve Dekalim, reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Nissenbaum is with the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip. Merzer, in Jerusalem, reports for the Miami Herald. Nathaniel Hoffman of the Contra Costa Times in Kfar Darom and Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Mahmoud Habboush in Gaza City contributed to this article.)


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

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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050816 MIDEAST Gaza, 20050816 Gaza disengage

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