Clashes erupt in Gaza

Israeli settlers wept tears of rage and defiance on Tuesday as they clashed with security forces poised to evict them from their Gaza Strip homes after a midnight deadline.

Police and soldiers traded punches with their fellow Israeli citizens in the main settlement of Neve Dekalim, underlining the rifts within the Jewish state that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised would heal after Israel ends its 38-year presence in the occupied territory.

While the arrival of dozens of removal vans inside Neve Dekalim showed that some were willing to give up their fight after police stormed in, hard-liners were literally digging themselves elsewhere in the coastal strip of land.

The settlers’ sense of pain and bewilderment at their one-time champion Sharon was summed up in the front-page headline of their Hatzofe newspaper: “Gush Katif weeps”.

The reality of their situation was underlined when police used bulldozers and hacksaws to force their way into Neve Dekalim, the largest of the doomed 21 communities, which is situated in the main Gush Katif bloc.

A police spokesperson said a decision had been made to enter forcibly to enable vans to remove the belongings of residents who wanted to leave voluntarily.

“We came in at around 7am in order to allow 120 trucks to get inside for those who want to voluntarily evacuate. We are not going to allow anyone to stop them,” Superintendent Eli Levi said.

As the convoy of vans drove through Neve Dekalim, they found their way blocked by a group of about 150 youths who tried to form a human chain across the road outside the municipal headquarters.

The protesters were soon dispersed by hundreds of police and soldiers but only after blows were exchanged. Medical sources said one soldier and one police officer were wounded.

At least a dozen youngsters were arrested, most of them dragged off screaming and kicking as the crowd howled in rage: “Jews don’t evict Jews!”

Silent tears rolled down the face of one female soldier in the barricade as a young settler woman was knocked to the floor and nearly crushed under the feet of the raging crowd.

Many settlers, men and women, broke down in tears, while others were enraged.

“Nazis! Shame on you,” spat one religious man.

Soldiers and police were also determined to prevent extremists entering Gaza, arresting about 500 people overnight as they tried to sneak into Gush Katif from Israel.

The security forces were expected to face some of the fiercest resistance in the settlement of Shirat Hayam, which has seen its ranks swelled by the presence of hundreds of ultra-nationalists.

A trench was being dug around the settlement, already ring fenced with barbed wire.

“We will not be violent, but if there is violence from the security forces we will have to respond,” said Nadia Matar, one of the protest ringleaders.

‘People should not delude themselves’

“To my great regret, there are opponents of the withdrawal who have infiltrated [the settlements] and who want to prevent from leaving those who want to,” Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said.

Calling the settlers “very wise, intelligent and responsible”, Mofaz doubted that they would provoke violence during the evacuation, which marks the first time Israel has withdrawn from occupied Palestinian land.

Minister of Housing Yitzhak Herzog warned that settlers who refused to leave by midnight were jeopardising their right to tens of thousands of dollars in compensation.

“People should not delude themselves that everything will be fine afterwards and that someone will take care of things,” he said.

In the far northern West Bank, however, there was no sign of resistance. The army announced late on Monday that two of four small settlements also due to be evacuated were already empty.

The Palestinians, hoping for a future state with east Jerusalem as its capital, are insisting that Israel carry out much larger pull-outs from the West Bank if there is to be any chance of peace in the Middle East.

However, Sharon sees the Gaza operation as an opportunity to strengthen Israel’s hold on West Bank settlement blocs, which the Palestinians regard as an integral part of their promised future state.

In an address to the nation, Sharon said the pull-out will put the onus on the Palestinians to show their desire for peace.

“This plan is good for Israel in any future scenario. We are reducing the day-to-day friction and its victims on both sides,” he said.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the same logic applies to the whole of the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem.

“There you have friction with 2,5-million Palestinians and this area also should not be part of the future of Israel.”

The operation to clear all the settlers from Gazais is expected to be completed by the first week of September.

However, Mofaz said Israel will still not allow the Palestinians to enter the settlements for a whole month after the last Jewish residents have gone.

Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the government to suspend plans temporarily to demolish 26 synagogues in the Gaza Strip as part of its withdrawal from the territory.

The court asked the state to present alternative plans for the doomed synagogues within 48 hours, a judicial source said.

Judges were ruling on a petition submitted by settlers opposed to Israel’s pull-out from the Gaza Strip.

Hamas supporters gather

Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of Islamist fundamentalist movement Hamas gathered en masse on Tuesday in Khan Yunis to celebrate the coming end of Israel’s 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip.

The demonstrators rallied near an Israeli army checkpoint between the depressed southern Gaza town and the main Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Katif, but Palestinian police held the crowd back from approaching the roadblock.

Masked members of Hamas’s armed Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which has been responsible for most anti-Israeli attacks during the near five-year Palestinian uprising, carried homemade rockets as well as green Hamas and Palestinian flags.

“They destroyed our homes, we’ll leave them to destroy theirs by their own hands,” was seen scrawled on banners held aloft by the crowd, alluding to Israeli plans to bulldoze all the settler homes before exiting the territory.

Red Cross restarts operations

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday that it has resumed operations in the Gaza Strip, after a week-long freeze following a shooting incident.

The aid organisation said it restarted aid work on Monday, after receiving guarantees from the Palestinian Authority and “other parties” in Gaza. It did not elaborate.

The ICRC, which oversees the Geneva conventions on warfare, has a policy of confidentiality in its dealings with governments and other groups in conflict zones.

The ICRC halted its operations—including deliveries of food and medical supplies—after an August 7 incident in which one of its offices in the area was hit by gunshots.

Security fears among aid workers have grown following a spate of abductions of foreigners in Gaza, and the United Nations has announced it is pulling out all but its most essential staff from aid operations there.

The problems have proved an embarrassment for the Palestinian Authority, which is trying to prove it can keep law and order after Israel completes its withdrawal this week.—Sapa-AP, AFP