Gaza pull-out: Troops storm synagogue

Thousands of Israeli stormed the main synagogue of the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim on Thursday to remove about 1 500 protesters, one of the last bastions of resistance to the Gaza pull-out.

“Don’t expel Jews,” the crowd chanted as police charged into the prayer hall and began dragging away protesters. The crowd booed, whistled and threw water at the troops. One youth draped in an Israeli flag was carried feet-first down a ramp and packed into a waiting bus.

Troops broke in after hours of negotiations with settler leaders.

In the nearby settlement of Kfar Darom, hundreds of Gaza pull-out opponents barricaded themselves behind rolls of barbed wire in the synagogue, and security forces dragged screaming residents out of homes.
Settlers elsewhere burned houses, fields and tires in protest.

Capturing the two synagogues will be an important victory for the forces. The people inside—mostly extremist youths from the West Bank and Israel—have provided some of the fiercest resistance to the pull-out.

As the troops approached the Neve Dekalim synagogue, a bearded settler spat on an Israeli flag and ripped it into pieces. The man wore a Nazi-style pink Star of David on his shirt.

On the second day of removing settlers by force, troops encountered stiffer resistance than at the start of the operation.

However, security officials said they expect to clear out all 21 Gaza settlements by Tuesday, more than two weeks ahead of schedule.

By nightfall, police expect 18 settlements to be empty.

On Thursday, troops entered several of the most hard-line Gaza communities.

In the farming settlement of Netzer Hazani, protesters set fire to barricades, fields and houses, sending a huge plume of black smoke into the air. Youths in Shirat Hayam, a hard-line beachfront outpost, burned tires and garbage.

In the nearby outpost of Kfar Yam, a Jewish settler armed with an M-16 rifle threatened to open fire on troops if they tried to evacuate him, Israeli media reported.

There had been relatively little violence in Gaza on Wednesday—though a Jewish extremist in the West Bank shot dead four Palestinians in an apparent attempt to disrupt the Gaza pull-out.

In Kfar Darom, where protesters barricaded themselves inside a synagogue, the army set up a special command centre, and the army chief, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, personally oversaw the operation.

Soldiers formed several cordons around him to shield him from shouting settlers.

Thousands of soldiers had entered the settlement at dawn and quickly encircled the synagogue and two nearby buildings. After failed attempts to negotiate a peaceful surrender, troops began moving into homes.

“Why did you become a soldier, to be in this crazy situation?” screamed a young mother, cradling a baby, as soldiers entered her home.

In another house, a husband and wife lay on the floor, shrieking and clutching their small children. A soldier participating in the evacuation of a religious school suddenly disobeyed orders and was quickly carried away by troops.

Troops also burst into a nursery school crowded with protesters.

People sang and danced as the troops entered, and about two dozen young children were playing with toys. Troops quickly cleared out the building.

The fiercest resistance was expected at the synagogue, where hundreds of protesters on the roof barricaded themselves behind rows of barbed wire. Some held mirrors and attempted to reflect the sunlight into the eyes of troops below.

At mid-afternoon, the army wheeled in a large crane equipped with metal cages to drag protesters off the roof as a bus waited below.

Military officials said they still hope to resolve the stand-off without using force.

Moti Cohen, who had come from Jerusalem to be with the settlers, said protesters have hoarded sand bags and cans of foam spray for the confrontation. A large banner draped over the facade read: “For the Lord will not abandon His people or abandon His land.”

Residents jeered the forces throughout the day, driving several soldiers to tears.

“You’re right. Cry like we are crying,” shouted one settler who was loaded on to a bus, still wearing his white prayer shawl. By midday, 200 people had been removed, the army said.

Noga Cohen, who had three children maimed in a Palestinian shooting attack on a bus, said Israel is surrendering to Palestinian militants. On the door of her house was a sign: “In the event you knock on the door, you are a direct partner in the most terrible crime in the history of the nation of Israel.”

Just a few metres outside Kfar Darom, dozens of Palestinians stood on the roofs of their houses watching the evacuation.

“For the first time in the last few years I’m standing here without any fear that Israelis will shoot at me because their battle today is against themselves,” said Mohammed Bashir, a Palestinian farmer.

In the small settlement of Netzer Hazani, troops faced off with settlers on either side of a burning barricade of garbage containers and tyres soaked in gasoline. There was a pall of smoke over the settlement after settlers burned trees and brush nearby. A fire truck and large bulldozer cleared out the area, and troops poured into the settlement.

Residents pelted the fire truck with eggs and shouted at the soldiers, who used megaphones to order the settlers back into their homes. Most complied, though several emerged later tried to block an army bulldozer from clearing a path for troops.

Troops also entered the small settlement of Gan Or and Shirat Hayam, a small hard-line outpost. In Gan Or, one house was set on fire, and one family barricaded themselves in their home.

The army declared a curfew in Al-Mawasi, a Palestinian town adjacent to Shirat Hayam, to protect settlers and soldiers during the pull-out.

So far, the pull-out’s worst violence occurred not in Gaza, but in the West Bank. A Jewish settler, apparently despondent over the withdrawal, opened fire at Palestinian workers, killing four.

Hamas pledged revenge, but a spokesperson for the Islamic militant group indicated the group will not attack exiting Israelis in Gaza since it wants the withdrawal to be completed as soon as possible.

After the West Bank shooting, three mortar shells and a home-made rocket fired from Palestinian territory exploded near emptied Gaza settlements. No one was hurt.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon condemned the shooting and appealed to settlers to direct their anger at him, not at the soldiers.

Sharon proposed his “disengagement plan” two years ago to ease Israel’s security burden and help preserve Israel’s Jewish character by placing Gaza’s 1,3-million Palestinians outside the country’s boundaries. Israel has occupied Gaza for 38 years.

The Palestinian Authority and the United States want the pull-out to be the beginning of the “road map” peace process, meant to bring about an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Palestinian militants are portraying the pull-out as a victory for their suicide bombings and rocket attacks, and some Israelis fear they will resume their violence once the withdrawal is complete.—Sapa-AP