Exodus: Anger and anguish as Israeli soldiers drive out settlers

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The Independent Online

It was a scene of almost Shakespearean intensity. Indeed everything that took place in this, the largest of the Gaza settlements from which forcible evacuations began yesterday, had something theatrical about it. The one deadly event of the day was outside Gaza, in the West Bank.

In an act described by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as one of " Jewish terror", Asher Weisgan, a 38-year-old Israeli driver from Shvut Rahel settlement in the West Bank, who transported workers to and from the industrial area in the settlement of Shiloh every day, killed two Palestinian passengers with a stolen gun and ran into an industrial area, killing another worker and wounding two others. The attack was less than three weeks after an extreme right-wing opponent of disengagement killed four Israeli arabs in Shfaram.

A total of 8,518 settlers are being removed in Gaza. Across the territory yesterday, the day after the voluntary deadline, there were protests, tears and confrontations.

In southern Israel, a 54-year- old woman set herself on fire. Within Gaza, 14,000 troops entered six Jewish settlements where settlers and protesters were refusing to leave. In Morag, soldiers encountered cement blocks and burning rubbish. Dozens of protesters were carried out of a synagogue. In Bedolah, an ageing local rabbi was taken from the synagogue still clutching a Torah scroll.

In Neve Dekalim, as security forces converged on the synagogue where most of the extreme right anti-disengagement youth were holed up, Sarit Cohen's family sang their last prayers outside the house. Led by the matriarch, wearing a pillbox woollen hat and long skirt and clutching a large, black bound and embossed Bible, a slow procession of about 15 people took place: the family itself, with two daughters weeping copiously, and local well-wishers. It ended at the waiting bus, the matriarch herself stopping frequently to declaim to passing soldiers and policemen the error of their ways. As the family boarded the bus, a friend of the Cohens and their religious teacher, declared: "This is a beautiful family who has never hurt anybody and had a life project. To give a prize for terror, to show that terror works, that is not what the world needs."

The atmosphere was funereal. The Cohens' friend tore his shirt as the family reached the bus in the familiar gesture of Jewish mourning. The police made reporters wait 10 metres down from the garden gate as the family left, out of respect for their wishes. It was hard to realise that no-one had died here. Or that the dark mood of bereavement was because a democratically elected government was dismantling communities on occupied land, long declared illegal under international law; a move which the world community judges as an essential contribution to peace. And one for which the 8,500 settlers themselves are being lavishly compensated and rehoused at a cost of around $1bn (£550m).

This is not to underestimate the strength of feeling of the settlers as the army began yesterday afternoon to evacuate them with a combination of what was officially described as "sensitivity and determination". An apt description for an operation by an army not known for its gentleness. Although only about 100 of 450 families had volunteered to leave by the official deadline, Brigadier General Nitzan Muriel, observing the operation, said that "the level of struggle" by the settlers was lower than the army had allowed for. Some people had put up a "small struggle" by insisting on being carried out of their homes "because they want to be in a position to say to their children and their grandchildren 'yes we resisted evacuation'."

Yet this does not adequately describe another Cohen evicted yesterday. Shmuel, a check-shirted, black-bearded bear of a man, struggled with such ferocity for every one of the 15 metres from his front door to the waiting bus, that seven well-trained soldiers were required to carry him before forcing him into the vehicle.

His wife required four women soldiers to carry her as she also struggled all the way, as did several of their seven tearful children. The officer in charge of the operation, who gave his name only as Major Sagy, said this family was not unique. Most had either walked out quietly, or had asked to be carried out simply in order not to be seen leaving voluntarily. "But we visited this family in the morning and we realised that unfortunately we would have to use force," he added.

The Zanora family refused to answer the door to police. Having at first said they would do so after they had prayed at 1.30pm, they failed to answer repeated knocks. Police used a sledge-hammer to force open the door and found the family sitting on the floor awaiting their eviction.

And so the evacuation went on. General Muriel said they would deal with the bulk of the infiltrating youths, "up to 3,000 of them", once families were out. The woman who set fire to herself was in hospital with 70 per cent burns. By yesterday evening the only deaths were those of the three Palestinians in Shiloh.

Yet even yesterday, some could not believe what was happening. A US tax attorney who came to Gush Katif from Boston, Massachussets, urged, in a stage whisper, a gang of extreme right infiltrators to stop burning green plastic skips of rubbish to create billowing, angry clouds of smoke.

The skips would be needed in months to come, he told them, because even at this late stage God would prevent the evacuation taking place. Around him, police were carrying scores of screaming, struggling, teenage ideologues into prison buses.

The Israeli view

'It's like we live in different worlds, Tel Aviv versus Gush Katif'

For media-saturated Israelis, the forced evacuation from Gaza seemed a distant development - eliciting sympathy, perhaps, but little sense of solidarity.

"It's like we live in different worlds, Tel Aviv versus Gush Katif," said lawyer Dedi Cohen in reference to the main Gaza settlement bloc, the scene of often violent confrontations between diehard right-wingers and security forces who came to remove them. "Over here, we are living our lives as usual, while the Gaza settlers see themselves fighting for their lives. I think this withdrawal was inevitable, the only sane thing to do," Mr Cohen, a Tel Aviv resident, said.

The first evacuation of settlements on land Palestinians want for a state may have been a dramatic moment for Israel, but at the height of the operation its commercial television channels switched from live coverage to daily soap operas.

There was no sign of the traffic disruption opponents of the pullout had threatened. As security forces and settlers scuffled in the Gaza heat, it was another day at the beach in Tel Aviv.

Polls show a narrow majority of Israelis support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vision of "disengaging" from conflict with the Palestinians by quitting Gaza and a corner of the West Bank, territories occupied since the 1967 war.

Dan Williams

The Palestinian view

'We have liberated part of our land. The resistance will continue'

Militant factions in Gaza City lost no time claiming victory over the departing settlers and warned of further resistance as jubilant Palestinians celebrated the liberation of part of their land occupied for 38 years.

A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, pasted posters on the walls of Gaza showing a Hamas fighter standing on the roof of a settlement house. " This is a historic turning-point in the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said. "We have liberated part of our land, as a result of our resistance. The resistance will continue in the West Bank."

About 300 masked fighters in military fatigues, carrying rifles and rockets, paraded in front of the Al Gheroub cafeteria overlooking the Mediterranean. Abu Hamzeh, who said he was in charge of 90 militants, said: "We are not going to give up the weapons of the resistance until the liberation of all Palestine. This [withdrawal] is the beginning of our victory."

From his smallholding overlooking a settlement in Deir al Balah, 51-year-old Mohammad Al-Salqawi, watched the Israeli troops move in. "Of course I am happy," he said. "I will take my land back. I lost greenhouses which were demolished to make room for the settlement."

Said Ghazali