Israeli troops brace for showdown with settlers

Israeli forces were set for a showdown on Thursday with the final hard core of Gaza Strip settlers, surrounding synagogues where thousands of religious Jews had taken refuge.

As the country struggled to absorb the traumatic impact of ending its 38-year occupation of Gaza, Israelis were united in praise for the role of the army and police tasked with expelling fellow Jews from their homes.

Settlers were dragged kicking and screaming from their homes on Wednesday, the first day of the forcible evacuation of the 21 Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Some shredded their clothes in a sign of mourning and one woman even set herself ablaze in protest at the historic pull-out from Palestinian land.

The withdrawal is being completed more quickly than expected, with up to nine settlements reported empty, and officials said the evacuation could be wrapped up within a week “barring unforeseen circumstances”.

After evacuating at least five settlements on Wednesday, Israeli forces backed by bulldozers rolled into the Kfar Darom settlement after dawn on Thursday, seen as one of the most defiant settler bastions.

Many of the residents headed straight to the settlement’s synagogue, taking refuge both inside and on the roof, a correspondent for news agency AFP said.

Troops who were bombarded with appeals to refuse their orders waited impassively outside the building while prayers were said inside.

Military sources said Kfar Darom was one of seven settlements to be evacuted in the course of Thursday, along with Netzarim, Shihat Hayam, Gan Or, Atsmona, Slav and Rafiah Yam.

At the largest settlement of Neve Dekalim, up to 2 000 settlers and supporters were believed to have taken refuge in a synagogue complex.

The complex, which houses an Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite synagogue, was completely surrounded by more than 1 000 members of the security forces.

Hundreds of youths were massed on the roof and the balconies of the synagogue, waving flags and banners protesting Israel’s pull-out from the Gaza Strip.

Regional police Commander Roni Ohana said that 1 500 soldiers and police were ready to move in to the synagogue when the order is given.

As a solid line of police snaked around the whole complex, several buses were on standby to cart off protesters.

Naftali Karni was among those inside the complex, having come to Neve Dekalim from his home in Tel Aviv as a show of solidarity.

“I came to support my brothers and go through this painful experience together with them,” said Karni, who was also present at the 1982 eviction of settlers in the Sinai after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

“We won’t use force, but we will never let them take us easily. There is still a chance of a miracle.”

A source close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was for years seen as the settlers’ ultimate champion, said negotiations were being held with rabbis in a bid to avoid any violence.

“They are they only ones they are listening to,” he said.

The vast majority of Neve Dekalim residents were evacuated on the first day of the operation, with most of those inside the synagogue having come from outside. Police said only 60 to 70 of the more than 500 houses had yet to be cleared.

Not even the killing of three Palestinians by a Jewish settler in the West Bank on Wednesday could halt the momentum, with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas urging calm in its aftermath.

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.

Striking a tone of reconciliation, the commander of the pull-out, General Dan Harel, said there has been “excellent cooperation” with the Palestinians, words of praise that were echoed by the United States State Department.

Sharon, vilified by settlers who once considered him their champion and the target of several death threats, said he had been moved to tears seeing Jews being hauled from their homes by Jews.

“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.

The top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot endorsed Sharon’s call for the settlers to respect the army that has been safeguarding them from their Palestinian neighbours over the past three decades.

“This is not a war, and there is no enemy,” it said.
“On the contrary, it is an intra-society clash, a traumatic event, tainted with ugly phenomena and harsh sights.”—AFP

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