Focus shifts to West Bank as Gaza empties

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops, greeted with flaming pyres, mock tombstones and tearful prayers, were completing the evacuation of six of the remaining seven Gaza Strip settlements last night.

The seventh, Netzarim, isolated on the edge of Gaza City, is due to be cleared today. Bulldozers began demolishing houses in three settlements - Pe'at Sadeh in the south and Dugit and Nissanit in the north.

Earlier, the cabinet approved the removal of four settlements from the northern West Bank, two of which are already empty. Troops are bracing for violent confrontations when they enter the remaining two, Sa-Nur and Hormesh, in force later this week. Radical right-wingers, who have moved into Sa-Nur for a final showdown, exchanged blows with an advance guard yesterday and slashed their tyres.

In Gaza, the army reported little active resistance, but much emotion. Residents of the two most militant settlements, Katif and Atzmona, finally boarded the buses after soldiers joined them in farewell services. Despite the show of defiance, the orange ribbons and familiar cries of "A Jew doesn't expel a Jew", they seemed resigned to the inevitable. An army bulldozer broke down the locked gate of Katif and cleared the blazing hay, tyres and wooden planks.

One resident, Haim Ben-Arieh, gave his garden hedge a final clip. "I love this place," he said, "and will take care of it until the bitter end." A sobbing David Hatuel held a memorial ceremony for his wife, Tali, and four children, aged two to 11, who were shot dead in a Palestinian ambush while driving to an anti-disengagement rally in May 2004. Candles flickered on five plastic chairs, bearing the handwritten names of the victims. In Atzmona, a young settler, Yiska Harush, erected a "cemetery of the oppressors", with cardboard tombstones, among others, for Hitler, the Roman Emperor Titus, who destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in AD70, and Yasser Arafat. One was left blank. She declined to say who it awaited.

Many of Atzmona's 90 farming families were moved there from Sinai after the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. They left for a tented encampment, having refused to have any dealings with the disengagement authority established to find them new homes and sources of income.

In a sharp statement at the beginning of yesterday's cabinet meeting, Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, urged them not to be used as pawns in a political game by the West Bank and Gaza settlement leadership.

Insisting that solutions were available for all of them, Mr Sharon said: "I call on the evacuees not to listen to incitement, not to pay attention to plans for establishing tent encampments by those who are prepared to cause people to suffer in order to carry out their political plans."

While praising the restraint of the army and police, as well as many of the settlers, the Prime Minister denounced the hundreds of young extremists, mainly from the West Bank, who slipped through the police cordon to stiffen settler resistance. In what sounded like a final divorce from his former allies in the settlement enterprise, he fulminated: "Some of the infiltrators' actions could be defined as hooliganism bordering on the criminal. This reflects not only on them, but on those who dispatched them, incited them and handled them."

After meeting Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, in Gaza City, David Welch, the American Assistant Secretary of State, hailed the disengagement as "an important opportunity to take further steps forward toward a better future for Israelis and Palestinians." But a masked Hamas gunman, identified as Abu Obaidah, insisted earlier that they would not surrender their weapons. "This retreat does not mean the end of our battle, but the beginning," he said. Musa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas political leader, vowed: "There is still the West Bank and Jerusalem. Gaza is only a small part of occupied Palestine."