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Israel finishes Gaza Strip pullout, girds for West Bank removal

HOMESH, West Bank—Israeli troops wrapped up their forced removal of settlers in the Gaza Strip on Monday and shifted thousands of soldiers to two small settlements that will be closed in the West Bank, where some commanders are worried that they'll face their most ferocious opposition.

Israeli forces are expected to move in Tuesday on Sanur and Homesh, where hundreds of activists have been laying the groundwork for a major fight to derail the pullout.

Concerns about violent confrontations in Gaza proved to be unfounded.

The worst fight came last week in the settlement of Kfar Darom, where hundreds of young activists made their last stand on the razor wire-lined roof of the synagogue by throwing paint, garbage and debris at soldiers. Dozens of demonstrators, soldiers and police officers were slightly injured, but the battle ended relatively quickly.

But many Jews view the West Bank, the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria, as land that God bequeathed to them. In addition, the area has valuable water resources, and it abuts Jerusalem.

As they did in the Gaza Strip, hundreds of activists who oppose the government pullout plan have converged on Sanur and Homesh, the final settlements scheduled for withdrawal. Two other small West Bank settlements were evacuated voluntarily.

On Monday, Homesh was buzzing with young infiltrators, the so-called "hilltop youth" from hard-core settlements near Nablus and illegal settlement outposts throughout the West Bank.

While some older residents said they'd agreed not to raise a hand against the soldiers, they were concerned that the outsiders wouldn't adhere to the same pledge.

Yochanan Chareth, a settler who was guarding the community's front gate, said he knew of a house occupied by recent arrivals who'd stockpiled Molotov cocktails.

"You have a very complicated social structure here now," he said. "Most of the people are not willing to be aggressive," but there are groups who may not play by those rules.

"We're not trying to prove Masada again, but they are," said Chareth, referring to the fortress where Jewish Zealots killed themselves and their families in A.D. 73 rather than fall to Roman soldiers.

Not everyone in Homesh is convinced that violence is on the horizon.

Yedidya Lerner, a teacher who moved here last year with his wife and two children, said the talk of violence was "mostly propaganda" designed "to slow down" the soldiers, even if they couldn't be defeated outright because of the army's superior force.

"It is a vague threat," he said. But if it helps the standoff to last two or three days, he added, "we will be very satisfied."

Israel is shifting its attention to the West Bank after evacuating all 21 of its Gaza Strip settlements within a week. Forces moved into the last settlement, Netzarim, after dawn Monday and had cleared out most residents by nightfall.

The demolition of the other Gaza settlements picked up steam, with bulldozers and pneumatic jackhammers sometimes requiring as little as 17 minutes to destroy two-story homes.

The seaside community of Peat Sadeh, which last week served as home to about 100 people, was leveled, and the heavy equipment chewed and pounded at homes in Morag, Ganei Tal and other settlements throughout the day.

No one on the Israeli side was happy about the demolition, which is part of the agreement for turning over the land to the Palestinians, who plan to build more housing for refugees, a seaport and possibly a resort.

"I feel very sympathetic toward the people who lived here," said Maj. Dov Zigelman, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. "I wish I could have done more for them, in uniform, out of uniform, whatever."

Although Israeli forces encountered ardent resistance in the Gaza Strip settlements from outside activists, the process went remarkably smoothly. But some Israeli officials are worried that resistance in the West Bank could prove to be more difficult.

At the start of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Homesh was home to about 52 families. About two years ago, three residents of the community were killed in separate Palestinian sniper attacks on nearby roads over a 10-day period and about half the families moved out, Lerner said. More religious families moved in, but Homesh never returned to its original size.

Late Monday, Homesh residents had a farewell ceremony near the community pool, at which they lowered the Israeli flag to half-staff and asked forgiveness of the residents who'd been killed in the terrorist attacks.

Sanur long served as a small artist colony with about 15 families, but residents filtered away over the years. As the government pullout drew closer, settlers moved in to shore up the community.


(Matza, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported from Homesh; Merzer, of The Miami Herald, reported from Gane Tal, Morag and Pe'at Sadeh. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from the Gush Katif settlements.)


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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050822 West Bank

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