Israeli army masses as first deadline for Gaza pull-out passes

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The Independent Online

As the countdown to the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza reaches a climax, the police have created a 15-mile buffer zone to try to prevent right-wing protesters disrupting the disengagement.

In the thinly-populated western Negev, police have set up roadblocks on all routes south and west.

At midnight last night, security forces sealed the Kissufim crossing, the last one still open. Chief Superintendent Avi Zelba, a police spokesman, said: "No one will be allowed in. Anyone who leaves can't go back. We are very determined not to let demonstrators be there."

But there were skirmishes early today at the gates of Neve Dekalim, as a noisy crowd of young settlers used hypodermic needles and other sharp objects to let down the tyres of at least four security force vehicles using roads in and out of the settlement, the largest in Gaza.

The crowd seized and made a bonfire of bundles of aerial photographs of Gaza and its settlements ­ distributed for military use during the disengagement. Militant settlers identified one man as a member of the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet and followed him until he left the scene.

The protest came 24 hours after local settlers' leaders had proposed that residents man the gates of settlements to prevent the military entering.

This morning, following the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av, thousands of soldiers have been allocated to visit all 1,500 settler families to distribute eviction orders and request them to leave peacefully within 48 hours, but late last night it called off plans to enter five of the 21 settlements. An army spokeswoman said the reason was to "respect the wishes" of the settlers, who preferred to receive the notices by mail. The soldiers will help those who agree to pack their belongings. Those who do not comply by Wednesday will be removed by force.

Diehards intend to make it as difficult as possible to get them out. Settler leaders plan to lock the gates to all 21 sites. Some are threatening to tear up their papers, others to declare an autonomous "Jewish authority" and try to stay put.

At a meeting in Neve Dekalim on Saturday night, Rafi Sari, the head of the Gush Katif Action Committee, said: "The army is counting on our leaving on Monday and Tuesday ... but we're not co-operating. We won't leave and we won't make it easy for them." Mr Sari advised residents to remove objects of sentimental value from Gush Katif but warned driving cars out could lead the media to assume the owners were leaving.

At the main cemetery in Neve Dekalim, residents held what will be the last annual Tisha B'Av ceremony. The 45 people buried there include a Holocaust survivor and a 16-year-old Jewish girl killed by Palestinian militants.

The settlers' "battle headquarters" in Gush Katif distributed leaflets at the weekend calling for psychological warfare. "Tell the soldiers you want to take their picture," they wrote. "Tell them you want to show the children at school who the people are who threw you out of your house."

Settlers in two of the most militant communities, Kfar Darom and Shirat Hayam, announced after general meetings yesterday that they would avoid all violence, physical or verbal, and would carry no guns.

They appealed to as many as 4,000 sympathisers, who have infiltrated over the past few weeks, to resist passively or leave.

If anyone is going to fight the army, it is thought to be these outsiders. But Major-General Dan Harel, who is in charge of the pullout, told army radio yesterday: "They won't prevent us from carrying out the disengagement at the time and in the way we see fit."

Senior Israeli and Palestinian officers met last night to complete arrangements for a co-ordinated withdrawal. About 7,500 Palestinian security force members were deploying in a cordon facing the settlements to deter Palestinians firing a farewell fusillade at soldiers and settlers.

Israel has threatened to respond in force, occupying towns and refugee camps, rather than appear to retreat under fire.

In an incident early yesterday, an Israeli officer and four of his men were wounded by "friendly fire" after Palestinians shot at a military post near Kfar Darom. Israeli tanks fired back but hit one of their own patrols. A Palestinian gunman was also hit. Israeli and Palestinian troops separately combed the area and restored calm.

The Palestinian Authority delivered a warning it would not tolerate a free-for-all of seizing land or looting property after the Israelis leave. Mohammed Dahlan, the Minister for Civic Affairs, said: "We will use the land only for the benefit of the Palestinian people. We will not allow anyone to grab it." Mr Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief, added: "We do not want to turn the end of occupation into a misery for us. What shall we do?"