Gaza protesters arrested as Israeli army moves in to dismantle settlements

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The Israeli army started moving into the Jewish enclaves of Gaza last night in the opening stage of its first-ever operation to dismantle settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

A thousand troops and police entered Neve Dekalim, the largest Gaza settlement, four hours ahead of the midnight deadline for the voluntary departure of Gaza's 8,500 settlers. The historic operation began after a day in which security forces had dismantled the settlement's gate to open the road and contain sporadic rioting by hundreds of pro-settler demonstrators.

About 50 demonstrators were arrested as they burnt tyres and rubbish skips, threw eggs and paint bombs, and scuffled with police officers in an attempt to block the path of about 50 trucks ordered for the 100 families in the settlement ­ out of 450 ­ who said they were ready to leave before the deadline.

One police photographer was injured in Neve Dekalim when liquid believed to be ammonia was thrown in his eyes after he confronted demonstrators.

Elsewhere in the Gush Katif concentration of settlements, three evacuees in Pe'at Sadeh torched their homes with firebombs and black smoke could be seen rising from Bedolah, where settlers had set fire to three nursery warehouses.

Young far-right opponents of the withdrawal were gathering with supplies of food last night at two adjacent synagogues as they prepared for the security forces to arrive. The army is keen to clear Neve Dekalim of infiltrators, which it estimates at anything between 1,000 and 2,500. Major General Dan Harel, the Israeli Defence Force's southern commander, said last night that Neve Dekalim would be among the first to be evacuated from today. Soldiers there began knocking on settlers' doors last night urging them to leave before they were evicted forcibly.

Demonstrators, who staged a series of sit-down protests to block the lorries, again shouted abuse at police, who brought up water cannon to put out a fire in a rubbish skip, one of three strewn across the main road into Neve Dekalim.

But police liaising with senior army officers forced the demonstrators back amid a series of running scuffles. As one woman police officer was led away in tears after exchanges with demonstrators, there were cries of "capo" ­ a reference to Jews in concentration camps who aided their German captors.

Although several young disengagement opponents gathered at the synagogues yesterday said they did not intend violence, one demonstrator, Zalman Deshiker, 21, who came to Gush Katif from Brooklyn, New York, three months ago to oppose the disengagement, declared: "They are moving Jews from their homes like the Nazis. The only thing I can do is to stop it with my body. That's all I can think about."

Earlier Major General Israel Ziv, head of operations in the army's general staff, said in Neve Dekalim that the infiltrators would be moved out today unless that disrupted arrangements to move out further settler families who might also be seeking to leave today in individual contacts with the army. General Ziv said that the fact that the demonstrators were in many cases teenagers would obviously affect the techniques used to clear them, but added: "There is a limit."

Through much of the day settlers relayed through loudspeakers a tape of a speech by the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from 1974 ­ when the army was ordered to prevent the building of an unauthorised West Bank settlement ­ in which he appeared to condone soldiers refusing orders as a matter of individual conscience. But one middle-aged and bearded local man wearing a white prayer shawl was among several settlers' representatives who assisted police in trying to calm the protesters from outside Gaza.

At one of the two synagogues yesterday, Shlomit Soreh, 22, from a religious kibbutz near the Israeli town of Rehovot, said: "We are going to stay here until the army comes with the help of God."

Her brother Gilad, 22, said: "Nobody here knows exactly what is going to happen. But we do not want violence. That is very important to us."

During the protests which lasted late into the night as police sought to clear the roads round the synagogues and started to bring in prison buses for detained protesters, a group of mainly teenage demonstrators surrounded and pursued a sole, armed, army officer who refused to react as his tormentors taunted and hurled abuse at him wherever he walked. A tyre of at least one police bus was punctured.