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Withdrawal heads for swift conclusion, giving Sharon a political lift

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip—Israel's plan to shut down all its Gaza Strip settlements appeared headed for a swift conclusion after military forces cleared out the most violent strongholds of resistance Thursday and began preparing for the next phase of the complex operation: demolishing now-abandoned homes.

Two days into the forced removal of thousands of settlers and their supporters, Israel announced that most of the 8,500 settlers were gone and voiced optimism that the massive military operation—once expected to last weeks—might wrap up this weekend.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to have won a political boost from the swift and relatively sooth evacuation, after putting his legacy on the line in pushing the plan. A new poll published Friday in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper, showed 59 percent of Israelis still supporting the pullout and 61 percent voicing support for Sharon's handling of the situation.

The survey also found that more Israelis felt some empathy for the settlers than the ardent, young outsiders who proved to be the most confrontational, suggesting that the more radical stance of the activists had limited resonance among Israelis.

While early indications are that Sharon hasn't suffered politically from the pullout, there's no sign that Israel will be ready for further concessions to the Palestinians in the wake of the painful evacuation.

Israeli forces have all but cleared 15 of the 21 Gaza settlements, including the de facto capital of Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom, where they faced fierce clashes with hundreds of activists who made a last stand in the fortified synagogue.

By day's end, Israeli officials announced plans to move into the final phase: demolishing thousands of homes and dismantling military outposts in preparation for turning over the land to the Palestinians.

The process could take a month or more. But after that, the Gaza Strip land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War will be officially transferred to the Palestinian Authority, which is still deciding what to do with it.

The massive military operation is the culmination of a divisive 18-month initiative aimed at literally and figuratively redrawing the Israeli-Palestinian landscape. Sharon unilaterally decided to pull all Israelis out of the Gaza Strip, along with four smaller West Bank settlements, to better secure the nation's borders and protect hundreds of thousands of other people in larger settlements in the occupied West Bank.

On the second day of what was planned as a three-week operation, Israel faced its fiercest resistance from the outsiders. Activists at Shirat Hayam, a smaller outpost right on the Mediterranean beach, doused a barricade at the entrance in gasoline and set it ablaze to thwart oncoming soldiers. Others sat atop houses with guitars, singing patriotic songs and pleading unsuccessfully with the forces not to move in.

After days of skirmishes in Neve Dekalim, most of the remaining activists converged on the settlement synagogue, where military leaders tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.

Demonstrators coated the walkway to the synagogue in vegetable oil and painted the handrails while demonstrators inside sang, danced and prayed.

Out front, one irate man tried to set an Israeli flag on fire and then tore it to shreds and spat on the pieces before tossing them at soldiers in disgust.

Eventually, forces rushed the synagogue and began pulling out the holdouts one by one.

But the strongest resistance came in Kfar Darom, where hundreds of outside activists who've been living in the settlement's shantytowns fought off soldiers for hours.

Using the synagogue rooftop like a bunker, activists tossed buckets of paint, rocks, oil and sand on Israeli forces who climbed ladders and cut through razor wire to reach the holdouts. The military fought back by spraying demonstrators with water cannons and using cranes to lift shipping containers filled with troops onto the rooftops.

Eventually, the soldiers overwhelmed the demonstrators and won control of the synagogue, but not before dozens of soldiers and demonstrators were injured.

On Thursday, Palestinians who'd lived side-by-side with the Kfar Darom settlement for decades looked on in amazement as Israeli forces turned their water cannons on the holdouts.

"I didn't even imagine that one day I'll be standing like this and watching as the settlers are forced to move out by their army," said Khaled Bashir, whose family property abuts the settlement.

They've been anything but friendly neighbors. To protect the settlement, Israeli forces took one of the family's 3 acres and bulldozed it.

Bashir's 22-year-old sister, Nehad, looked on with a sense of satisfaction as Israelis battled Israelis.

"We have lived under grief and humiliation," she said. "It relieves me seeing them humiliated."


(Hoffman, in Kfar Darom, reports for the Contra Costa Times. Nissenbaum reported from the Kissufim Crossing into Gaza. Matza, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported from Neve Dekalim. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush contributed to this report from Dier El-Balah, Gaza Strip.)


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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050818 MIDEAST Gaza

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