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Israeli forces clear last 2 West Bank settlements

SANUR, West Bank—Israel's emotional and contentious plan to remove Jewish residents from 21 Gaza and four West Bank settlements concluded Tuesday, two weeks ahead of schedule and with a minimum of resistance.

Fears of a violent finale with zealous activists at Sanur and Homesh, the last two West Bank settlements cleared, proved to be unfounded. Soldiers quickly cleared the two communities, despite holdouts who tried to fend off police by throwing buckets of paint, debris and taunts.

Earlier withdrawals over the past week were also relatively subdued, as Israel removed 8,500 settlers from Gaza and shuttered its four northernmost settlements in the West Bank.

Palestinian militants near the settlements didn't attack withdrawing Israelis. Israeli opponents never seriously challenged their country's military. And two deadly shooting attacks by Jewish extremists, which left four Palestinians and four Israeli Arabs dead, failed to spark wider bloodshed.

Still, there's much work to be done before the land can be turned over to the Palestinians, probably in about a month.

Per agreement, Israel is swiftly destroying all of the settler homes so the Palestinians can build higher-density housing and other projects in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army also has to dismantle the military installations that have protected the settlements for decades, and Jewish cemeteries need to be relocated. At least two now-abandoned synagogues also are to be moved into Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav in the last two days to congratulate them. Sharon and Abbas agreed to meet soon, a step that could help jump-start peace talks.

"The Israeli unilateral pullout may be the end of an era from the Israeli perspective, but it's the beginning of an era from the Palestinian perspective," said Yoni Fighel, a researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. "I hope they will do something as historic with this opportunity."

Over the last week, Israel quickly cleared the 21 Gaza Strip settlements. On Tuesday, soldiers turned to the West Bank, where hundreds of activists had moved in over the past few months in an attempt to shore up the communities.

But their presence created little problem for Israeli soldiers. Many of the 15 families who stayed at Sanur past the pullout deadline walked on their own to waiting buses and sat quietly as the buses filled, while their outside supporters pleaded with the soldiers to reconsider.

Israeli forces cleared two synagogues of 50 people before turning their attention to the settlement's art gallery and community center, where activists on the roof used poles and ladders to try to fend off two cargo containers filled with soldiers that were hoisted by cranes onto the roof.

About 620 people were taken from Sanur, half the number the army expected to find.

In nearby Homesh, troops removed the settlers with relative ease, removing 709 people and leaving one lone protester clinging to an antenna mast about 100 feet off the ground.

Negotiators were still trying to talk him down after dark.

As they did in Sanur, a score of religious students stood on a roof encircled by concertina wire and hurled ketchup, tomatoes, eggs and paint at soldiers, who quickly scaled the one-story building and removed them.

A house with about 80 religious girls had to be painstakingly evacuated by female students who carried the girls—some limp, some struggling fiercely—to waiting buses.

The streets of Homesh, many of them named for residents who'd been killed in Palestinian attacks, were strewn with overturned dumpsters set ablaze, the smoldering hulk of a junked car, garbage and broken bottles.

On one street, Micael Manasharoff and his wife, Nana, waited for the soldiers to come to their door. Not a stick of furniture had been packed. Pictures hung from the walls. Manasharoff, 66, who lived in Homesh for 15 years, said he simply didn't think the pullout would happen.

But when the soldiers came marching by his home, he gave them a piece of his mind and took a shot at Sharon.

Going down the line and speaking softly to each soldier, he said they should rip their Israeli patches off their uniforms.

"One, two. One, two. You are soldiers of Palestine," he said in time to their marching feet. "Sharon brainwashed you."

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(Hoffman, of the Contra Costa Times, reported from Sanur; Matza, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported from Homesh. Knight Ridder Newspapers Middle East Bureau Chief Dion Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem.)

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

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