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Israeli army removes settlers from Gaza

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—Israelis responded with grief, relief and a deadly burst of gunfire Wednesday as their army swept through Gaza, carrying anguished Jewish settlers—including children wearing Stars of David—out of doomed houses and synagogues.

Despite the ugly episodes and poignant images from Gaza, which mesmerized the nation, Israeli authorities declared the day a success as they moved swiftly to empty five settlements and predicted a full withdrawal ahead of schedule.

Authorities said an Israeli settler grabbed a gun from a security guard and opened fire on Palestinians in the West Bank settlement of Shilo, killing four, wounding one and raising fears of another cycle of violence.

The man, Asher Weisgan, lived in the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rahel and apparently sought to disrupt the Gaza withdrawal. He was arrested. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon condemned the action as "Jewish terror."

A spokesman for the militant Islamist group Hamas vowed revenge and said Palestinian resistance would continue until Israel also surrendered the West Bank.

Earlier in the day, another Israeli protester from the West Bank set herself on fire at a roadblock between southern Israel and Gaza. Police said she was burned over 70 percent of her body.

Israeli military officials said they emptied the communities of Kerem Atzmona, Morag, Bedolah, Ganei Tal and Tel Katifa, and reported that at least 583 of 2,206 Israeli buildings in the area were clear of civilians.

Residents of Netzer Hazani persuaded soldiers to give them another 24 hours to work out a deal to leave voluntarily.

Police also removed many residents and activists from Neve Dekalim, though that large and militant settlement proved more challenging.

Military commanders had set Sept. 4 as the target date for removing all 7,500 Israelis from Gaza. But with more than two-thirds of the residents already gone, authorities hoped to complete the evacuations of all 21 settlements within days.

"The vast majority (of Israelis) are middle of the road on this issue and are deeply relieved that things are going smoothly with less violence than predicted," said Stuart Cohen, an expert on Israeli society with the Begin Sadat Center, a nonpartisan research center near Tel Aviv, Israel.

Still, much work remained, particularly in Kfar Darom, another flash point and a place where settlers and their supporters tried to torch two nearby Arab houses Wednesday night. Soldiers prevented serious damage and forced the demonstrators back into the settlement.

Earlier in the day, an overwhelming force of Israeli soldiers and police flooded into the Gaza settlements, enforcing Sharon's edict to evict all remaining Israeli residents forcibly.

Sharon described the scenes from Gaza as "heartbreaking," and few disagreed.

Across the Gaza Strip, Israeli residents begged, pleaded with and cursed at Israeli soldiers.

In Kerem Atzmona, sobbing children walked out of the settlement wearing Stars of David on their shirts, surrounded by soldiers. The scene evoked searing images of Jews surrendering at the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.

A woman in Neve Dekalim briefly held two knives to her throat, threatening suicide.

Many activists retreated to the synagogue for a last stand and remained there as darkness fell. Others tossed eggs and paint at advancing troops and police officers.

Soldiers and police, four in each team, dragged away crying residents and screaming, kicking, flailing supporters. At times, the officers could be seen brushing away tears.

"It's impossible to watch this—and that includes myself—without tears in the eyes," Sharon said.

As columns of reinforcements marched through Neve Dekalim, residents and outside demonstrators hurled insults at them. One group approached the troops carrying small stuffed toys.

"Here, take this and give it to your children as a souvenir of what you've done to the children of Neve Dekalim," one protester said.

Scores were arrested in Neve Dekalim alone.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav called the withdrawal "one of the most difficult and painful moments in the history of the state."

During a news conference, Sharon urged Israelis not to criticize those who carried out his orders.

"I want to call on everyone not to harm police officers and soldiers," he said. "Don't blame them and don't make things difficult for them. Don't attack them, attack me. I am responsible for this."

Saying Israel's survival required the controversial action, Sharon had vowed to end Israel's 38-year occupation of Gaza. On Wednesday, Israeli intelligence officials said they'd thwarted a recent attempt by the extremist group Islamic Jihad to sneak a suicide bomber into an unidentified Gaza settlement.

Opponents said Israel's unilateral withdrawal—without any concessions from the other side—would only encourage Palestinian militants to attack Jews in the West Bank and Israel itself.

In Beirut, Lebanon, Khaled Mishaal, a political leader of the militant group Hamas, said the group took partial credit for the Israeli action.

"Resistance has influenced Sharon to retreat from Gaza, resistance and the sacrifices of our Palestinian people," he said. "As long as the rest of the Palestinian land is still occupied and Palestinian rights are confiscated, then resistance is our strategic choice."

In Israel, those in favor of withdrawal maintained a low profile, not wanting to gloat during a time of such pain. Those opposed, however, spoke freely to one another and the news media.

"We saw all the stages: belief that it wouldn't happen, anger, mourning, weeping," Dr. Tzvi Moses, a clinical psychologist who's been working with the settlers, told Israel TV. "We're seeing here the stage of mourning and weeping, with anger still coming through."

Military officials said they intentionally chose some of the most defiant settlements for Wednesday's initial action and show of force.

"There's a psychological effect," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman. "Neve Dekalim is the mother settlement."

In Kfar Darom, which still awaited action by the authorities Wednesday evening, protesters turned the roof of the synagogue into a fortified stronghold, draping it with barbed wire and outfitting it with tents and portable toilets.

As soldiers began the forced evacuation of other Gaza settlements, the young activists at Kfar Darom became more excited and apparently eager for confrontation.

An army truck attempting to remove concrete blocks that had barricaded a main road was assaulted by teenage boys, who threw rocks and mud and tried to puncture the tires. Settlement leaders eventually ordered the youths away as the army moved on.

"The army, they suddenly set themselves up as our enemy," said Uri DeYoung, a New Jersey native who moved to Israel 15 years ago and lived in Kfar Darom. "All of a sudden, they want to destroy our town, and I'm not opposed to defending it."

In Neve Dekalim, defenders built barricades made of large plastic trash bins and set them ablaze. They tossed eggs and paint bombs at troops and their vehicles.

In the courtyard of the synagogue, men prayed and young girls made sandwiches for the hundreds of protesters holed up inside. Periodic blasts from a ram's horn were amplified over the synagogue's public-address system.

At the edges of the settlement, 17-member teams of police and soldiers, wearing "camelbacks" to provide water in the dehydrating heat, knocked on doors and explained to residents that the deadline had passed and it was time to go.

"We're supposed to clean out this road," one soldier said through a window to a woman who was refusing to leave her house.

"What are we," she spat back, "garbage that you have to clean out?"

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(Matza reported from Neve Dekalim, Hoffman from Kfar Darom, and Merzer from Jerusalem.

(Dion Nissenbaum with the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush in Gaza City contributed to this report.)

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050817 MIDEAST Gaza

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