Israel clears out Gaza settlement

Israeli forces today cleared out one of the last strongholds of opposition to the Gaza pullout and began demolishing homes in an empty settlement, avoiding a repeat of previous day’s violence in which youths pelted soldiers with acid, oil and sand.

The quick evacuation of Gadid was the latest sign of progress as Israel pushed forward with its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. All but four of Gaza’s 21 settlements were cleared out when the army suspended operations today for the Jewish sabbath.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas promised his people jobs, freedom of movement and new homes after the pullout is complete.

Speaking to a cheering crowd at the defunct Gaza International Airport, Abbas said Palestinians were experiencing “historic days of joy” as they watched Israeli settlers being taken out of Gaza. His speech was frequently interrupted by cheers from about 700 flag-waving supporters.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would rebuild all the homes demolished by Israel during the past five years of conflict, and would reopen the runways to re-establish Gaza’s air links.

Major General Dan Harel, Israel’s Gaza commander, said the remaining Gaza settlements could be emptied by next Tuesday – weeks ahead of schedule. Military officials said the West Bank pullback would begin by midweek.

Reflecting the quickened pace, Israeli excavators crushed several trailer homes in the empty outpost of Kerem Atzmona, the first home demolitions since the withdrawal began.

Israel plans to demolish all homes in the abandoned settlements, removing hazardous waste and turning over other rubble to the Palestinians for construction projects.

In the southern town of Rafah, hundreds of Palestinians prayed outside the gate of an abandoned Jewish settlement to offer thanks. Many wore T-shirts with the Palestinian flag and the slogan: “Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

The celebration, organised by the ruling Fatah movement, was held at a sandy border area that was the site of fierce fighting during the Palestinian uprising in recent years.

“We won, so we came to thank God for our victory,” said Abdel Raouf Barbar, a Fatah official. With parliamentary elections scheduled in January, the party is competing with the Islamic group Hamas to claim credit for the Israeli withdrawal.

The army began digging a series of trenches today around empty settlements to prevent Palestinian processions from entering. The army is expected to remain in the area for several weeks to dismantle its own installations before turning over the territory to the Palestinians.

The lone mission to clear out Gadid began at sunrise. A few holdout families, along with 60 hardline ”reinforcements” from outside Gaza, were in the community when the troops entered.

In what has become a familiar scene this week, settlers set two cars, wooden planks, and rubbish bins on fire, sending a thick plume of black smoke into the air.

Protesters hurled stones and paint-filled light bulbs in the direction of the troops, but hit no one. A military bulldozer cleared debris, and troops quickly fanned throughout the settlement.

Most of the protesters holed up in the settlement’s synagogue, where they were permitted to hold morning prayers. After negotiations with police, the protesters agreed not to resist with force. Police moved into the building and carried the limp and wailing protesters away into waiting buses.

Troops also rounded up holdouts who climbed on the roofs of homes and shouted insults. One woman slipped off a roof, suffering moderate injuries, the army said.

Palestinian militants opened fire at an army outpost in Gadid, causing no damage or injuries.

Palestinian officials have pledged to maintain calm during the pullout, and there have been only isolated instances of gun and mortar fire this week.

Later, dozens of protesters escaped from an evacuation bus carrying them back to Israel and fled into a Palestinian area of Gaza, the army said. Two were later recaptured, and soldiers were searching for the others.

The scene in Gadid was a sharp contrast to the fierce stand-offs yesterday between troops and young protesters in the Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom settlements. At least 41 police and soldiers and 17 civilians were injured, and about 50 people were arrested.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he was infuriated by yesterday’s violence, calling the rioters “criminals” who would be prosecuted.

Sharon told the Haaretz daily that he was saddened when he saw the TV images of Kfar Darom.

“But in the evening, when I saw the tossing of those bottles of poisonous substances, or harmful substances, and the injury to … soldiers and police, my mood altered and the pain turned to rage,” he said.

In Kfar Darom, dozens of protesters had barricaded themselves behind razor wire on the synagogue roof, at first singing and waving flags, then attacking soldiers below with caustic liquids and objects, including what appeared to be acid.

At Neve Dekalim, troops wrestled for hours against some 1,500 extremists making their last stand inside Gaza’s largest settlement. Protesters lay on the synagogue floor with their arms linked, kicking against the Israeli forces while supporters held their shoulders in a tug-of-war.

By this morning, Neve Dekalim was virtually empty, with security forces, journalists, a few rabbis and a small number of pullout resisters the only remaining inhabitants.

“It is terribly sad to see the empty streets,” said Eitan Ben-Mor, who had come from his home in the Golan Heights a week ago to lend support to the pullout resistance, and planned to leave after the morning prayer.

“The children are missing. The parents are missing,” he said. “The most simple things of day-to-day life were taken away cruelly, and by force.”

For years, 8,500 Israelis lived among Gaza’s 1.3 million Palestinians in perpetual tension and frequently lethal violence. Sharon says the pullout, which is to be accompanied by a withdrawal from four small West Bank settlements, will improve Israel’s security.

In a separate newspaper interview, Sharon said he has no plans to uproot any more Jewish settlements in the near future. Instead, he said future peacemaking would be based on the US-backed “road map” peace plan, which calls for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

“The burden of proof now rests on the Palestinian side,” Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Although the government has offered temporary housing to uprooted settlers, many refused to co-operate.

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