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Israeli police, army trained to act with restraint in Gaza

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—The police officer stood on the roof of the graffiti-scarred house, his head bowed reverently, as Israeli activists resisting removal from the Gaza Strip recited the evening prayers around him. For hours in the humid desert afternoon, the officer listened to the outraged demonstrators, nodding and patting their shoulders in sympathy.

Then, one by one, the activists, angered by their government's forced closure of Israel's 21 Gaza Strip settlements, climbed down the ladder, bringing a quiet end to yet one more standoff in the emotional conflict.

The incident, which played out on a quiet side street in the Neve Dekalim settlement, in many ways captured the reason that Israel's forced removal of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters has gone surprisingly smoothly and quickly.

While the soldiers and police officers were pelted with taunts, paint balls, bottles, rocks and even bleach-infused water balloons, none of it provoked a violent—and potentially galvanizing—reaction.

"None of them said what I'm sure they would have liked to have said," said Miri Eisin, a longtime intelligence officer with the Israel Defense Forces. "I think that made a very big difference. What would have made that simple little change was if someone would have responded to the provocations."

The task for the soldiers and police officers was difficult and confusing: Instead of being called on to patrol occupied Palestinian land, they were asked to remove their fellow Israelis.

The government made sure they were prepared. Soldiers and police officers went through days of training, psychological counseling and mock exercises.

For some, the real thing proved to be too much. Many broke down in tears after they carried wailing mothers and their adolescent children, kicking and screaming, from their homes. A handful refused to take part and had to be led away themselves.

Activists fighting the plan had hoped to use personal connections to soldiers, had hoped to wear down the troops and convince them to join their cause. Instead, it was the empathy of the soldiers and police officers that seemed to defuse confrontations.

Time and again, settlers started crying and threw themselves into the soldiers' arms. Police officers sat on the curb, comforting weeping mothers before gently shepherding them onto the bus that would take them away from their homes for the last time. Commanders went to great lengths to broker peaceful ends to standoffs.

"The policy of the army to be sensitive, to allow people to express their political opposition, seems to be working well," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Uzi Arad, the director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center, a university, said Israel's overwhelming deployment of forces—said to be the biggest since it invaded Lebanon in 1982—proved to be too much for the holdouts.

"The Israeli military is not exactly an ineffective military in its organization, discipline and training," he said. "They acted in sheer restraint, but their sheer mass was such that who could stand a chance?"

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

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