Rage and anguish as settlers are expelled

The last Jewish settlers were dragged kicking and screaming out of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday as Israel moved to end 38 years of occupation of the Palestinian territory.

Backed by bulldozers, Israeli forces fanned out through the Mediterranean seafront territory, marching through makeshift barricades into seven settlements after hundreds of families defied a midnight deadline to leave voluntarily.

As smoke rose from tyres set ablaze by protesters, emotions were running high with sporadic scuffles breaking out while settlers and soldiers wept tears of rage and anguish at the historic operation that pitted Jew against Jew.

While no bloodshed was reported in the Gaza Strip itself, a Jewish settler gunned down two Palestinians in the West Bank, Israeli medical sources said, and an Israeli woman suffered severe burns after setting herself alight.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who risked his political career on the pull-out and has been vilified by settlers who once considered him their champion, said he has been moved to tears seeing Jews being hauled from their homes.

In the main settlement of Neve Dekalim, a group of nine elderly women were dragged kicking and screaming on to a bus by about 50 police and soldiers.

“He [Sharon] has destroyed our lives and it’s just one big party for you,” screeched one of the women in her 60s.

In the tiny enclave of Kerem Atsmona, settlers walked out of their homes with their hands up, branding yellow Stars of David to imitate the ones worn by Jews during the Nazi persecution in Europe.

Protesters shredded their clothes in a traditional act of Jewish mourning in the southern settlement of Morag while members of a New York-based ultra-Orthodox movement threatened to commit mass suicide.

In Neve Dekalim, where hundreds of religious Jews were also barricaded in a synagogue, there were scenes of chaos as security forces loaded youths on to a bus, with one boy smashing a window on the vehicle and clambering out of the back before being intercepted.

The operation marks the first time Israel has withdrawn from Palestinian territory captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and has raised hopes in the international community of a new breakthrough in Middle East peace.

By mid-afternoon, officials said more than half the settlers and their “human shield” protesters had been evicted from Gaza.

“By now we’re over 60% out ... The number of infiltrators has been halved,” Sharon aide Ranaan Gissin told reporters.

Planners of Sharon’s disengagement plan indicated the operation, which has deeply divided the nation, would be over in a matter of days despite die-hard radicals in some areas barricading themselves behind trenches and barbed wire.

After giving the area’s 8 000 settlers 48 hours to leave voluntarily following the formal start of the pull-out on Monday, joint teams of thousands of soldiers and police rolled into a series of settlements at daybreak.

In Neve Dekalim, about 10 000 members of the security forces were on hand as troops also moved into at least six other southern settlements—Bedolah, Ganei Tal, Kerem Atsmona, Morag, Slav and Tal Katifa.

Police quickly declared Bedolah, Tal Katifa and Kerem Atsmona empty and said that only a “handful” of settlements were causing problems.

The first group of Israelis to be dumped out of Gaza hurled abuse at soldiers manning the Kissufim border crossing.

“Why are you enjoying this? People are being kicked out of their homes,” screamed one of the 30 passengers out of a window.

Sharon, once the pioneer of Israel’s settlement programme in occupied Arab land, said he has been moved to tears witnessing the Gaza events unfold and pledged settlement activity will go on.

“When I see these families with tears in their eyes and police officers with tears in their eyes, it’s impossible to look at this without weeping yourself,” he told reporters.

Police chief Moshe Karadi said that the operation will be completed much earlier than the initial three weeks scheduled, while an army spokesperson said it will be over “within a few days”.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas appealed for calm and urged Muslim clerics to preach against internal fighting and advocate unity during the pull-out.

“The Israeli occupation is leaving today. Let us allow them to leave and let us not give them any reason to delay,” he said.

Thousands of Palestinian security forces have been deployed around the Gaza Strip, stronghold of the radical Hamas movement and home to 1,3-million mainly impoverished Palestinians.

Sharon has argued that the Gaza pull-out will enable Israel to keep hold of its large West Bank settlements by easing international pressure for a more comprehensive pull-out.

He made clear that the settlement programme will continue unabated on land the Palestinians see as an integral part of their promised future state.

“Settlement is a serious programme that will continue and develop,” he said.—Sapa-AFP


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