Evicted: Troops battle with Gaza settlers as withdrawal looms

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The Independent Online

The defences of battered oil barrels and broken chairs were overrun in seconds. Boltcutters released boys handcuffed to metal poles like scissors through ribbon. Above the dining room ringed with wire, ladders clattered against the walls. Up on the roof a gang, many of them still teenagers, who had dug in for the long haul, found themselves dragged down.

Nobody fought back. The battle of Palm Beach Hotel was over in minutes.

It was the first of what is likely to be a summer of bitter scenes, replicated throughout Gaza, as 3,000 Israeli settlers are removed from what will be a Palestinian-run territory after mid-August. It is an operation that will be contested at every step by Jewish extremists. Their increased activity prompted the Israeli military to isolate the Strip, declaring it a closed military zone.

The derelict hotel at Gush Katif, a settlement due to be evacuated, had found itself encircled in a show of force designed to silence the militants gearing up to block Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned withdrawal.

The first sign had been the barbed wire on the beach at dawn. Running through the sand I came across the barricade. Rolls of spiked metal twisted their way into the sea. On the other side Israeli border police with semi-automatic rifles barked at me, saying I could come through but I wasn't going back in.

My first thought was to try to get back to the hotel, but the roadblock was in place on the main exit – a wire barricade manned by armed police who were letting no one in or out.

The Palm Beach had already been split in two. Half of its rundown rooms were home to the secular surfers, squatters who have adopted the hotel since it closed in the wake of the intifada. The rest became a base for the zealots, arriving in ever larger numbers since the withdrawal from Gaza was announced.

Blocks 1 to 5 were secular, the remainder occupied in the name of God, along with what used to be the common room, kitchen and dining room. Makeshift barricades blocked the doorways between the worlds.

On the beach, Meir and Lior, the two Israeli lifeguards, were pondering the flat sea. With no waves, the surfers with the Star of David boards were not in sight.

Lior, who moved here for surfing, not sit-ins, has had enough. "Things are getting dark here. It's the beginning of the end," he said. He said Jewish extremists beat up a local Palestinians in nearby Mouassi. "That's never happened before." He is thinking of leaving for Brazil. "I don't like the atmosphere on my beach any more," he said.

Meir was more militant. He told me the evictions were terrible and he was going to join the settlers in their last stand.

Back at the hotel the militants, about 150 in number, many clad in "people's power" orange, an idea adopted from Ukraine, had no idea what would happen next. For many of them this was their first confrontation with authority. Outside the younger boys were gleefully setting light to tyres. No one, least of all them, seemed to know why. The stench drifted on the sea breeze to the massing ranks of the police.

A meeting was called in the dining room and everyone came in, abandoning their lookout posts and barricades. As voices were raised inside, the riot units struck. A convoy of buses sped up to the gate and hundreds of officers, helmets on and truncheons out, charged through. Some protesters lay on the floor, red-faced, yelling: "Jews don't evict Jews". They were wrenched up and out, a policeman gripping each limb. A young woman phoning frantically for help was suddenly gone. They looked to the road for reinforcements, but the only buses brought more soldiers and police.

One of the settlers, a man in his 40s who avoided arrest, was patrolling the road. Born in America, he only moved to Israel in 1997. He refused to give his name but said he moved here with his teenage daughter two weeks ago to show his support. "We'll be back," he promised in an upbeat tone. "We'll stop the whole programme." A younger man who only arrived in Gush two days ago was less optimistic. Originally from Toronto but now studying in Jerusalem, he thought the "fall of the Palm Beach" was a very dangerous precedent. The Gaza settlement was a protection against terrorists and withdrawing handed them a victory, he said. "There should be Jews in Gaza. It was given to us by God."

Back on the beach, the surf was still not up. Gentle waves lapped the kilometre-long white shoreline. The postcard image was only broken by soldiers holding M-16s, standing at 50-yard intervals. Their backs to the warm sea, they stared at the emptied hotel.

Countdown to evacuation

* 1 February 2004: Ariel Sharon reveals his plan for dismantling Israeli settlements on the Gaza Strip, while maintaining most on the West Bank

* 6 June 2004: Cabinet accepts removal of settlements

* 25 July 2004: Thousands form a 50-mile human chain to protest against plan

* 26 October 2004: Parliament ratifies plan

* 18 December 2004: Sharon secures deal for withdrawal of troops from Gaza with Labour leader Shimon Peres

* 3 January 2005: Soldiers clash with settlers when removing outposts at a settlement

* 15 February 2005: Sharon vows that remaining West Bank settlements will not be given up

* 28 March 2005: Settlers warn of civil war after parliament rejects referendum on evacuation

* 9 May 2005: Sharon delays withdrawal until August in deference to religious holidays

* 5 June 2005: Settlers turn Gaza hotel into fortress and prepare to resist evacuation

* 9 June 2005: Israel's supreme court rules that withdrawal is constitutional

* 26 June 2005: Protesters clash with soldiers near a settlement due for demolition

* 28 June 2005: Soldier jailed for refusing to demolish empty buildings

* 30 June 2005: Settlements declared a closed military zone

* 15 August 2005: Due date for beginning of evacuation of 9,200 Gaza settlers