Israeli army pours into Gaza settlements

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Thousands of Israeli troops dragged sobbing Jewish settlers out of homes, synagogues and even a nursery school today and hauled them on to buses in a massive evacuation.

The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said images of Gaza settlers being removed from their homes were "heart-breaking'" and praised the restraint of both settlers and soldiers as Israel ended its 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip.

In one incident near the southern Israeli town of Netivot, a woman set herself alight at a roadblock. She was taken to hospital after reportedly suffering burns to 60 per cent of her body.

Elsewhere soldiers carried away worshippers still wrapped in their white prayer shawls. Men ripped their shirts in a Jewish mourning ritual. Women in a synagogue pressed their faces against the curtain covering the Torah scroll. Others kicked and screamed as they were loaded on to buses and the smell of burning garbage rose in the air.

Troops also scuffled with protesters in the isolated settlement of Morag, while irate settlers at another outpost employed Nazi-era imagery — including stars of David on their T-shirts — in protest at the military's actions.

But there were no signs of serious violence, and it appeared many residents were coming to terms with the withdrawal. "I believed that God would not let this happen, but this is not true," said a Morag woman clutching a baby.

Some 14,000 troops had entered five Jewish settlements — Morag, Neve Dekalim, Bedolah, Ganei Tal and Tel Katifa. Security officials said the goal was to clear out the 21 Gaza settlements in just a few days, far more quickly than originally planned.

Col. Israel Ziv, a commander in Neve Dekalim, said about 500 to 600 families were left in the Gaza Strip — about one-third of the total population — and that he expected more to leave throughout the day. But thousands of pullout opponents who infiltrated Gaza in recent weeks also remained. Ziv said the army planned to clear out the southern half of Gush Katif, the main bloc of Gaza settlements, on Wednesday.

One commander of a small army unit, identified only as Yitzhak, tearfully hugged a settler in Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement. "It's not easy. These are very special people. This is the salt of the earth," he said. "But we have a mission and we will carry it out, and I think these people understand that."

A grizzled colonel, also with tears in his eyes, shook hands with a young father, cradling the man's tiny baby, as he explained it was time to go.

Some teenage activists showed fierce resistance. Troops dragged flailing protesters, some as young as 12, onto the buses. "I want to die," screamed one youth as he was hauled away. Several soldiers were hit by white paint bombs, and protesters smashed the window of the bus.

Settlers were being removed at a rapid pace, with soldiers bundling them onto buses one after the other. About 10 buses filled with protesters drove away, the army said.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Neve Dekalim's main synagogue for morning prayers early Wednesday, clapping and singing songs that expulsion would not happen. Several youngsters climbed onto the roof of the building, while others formed circles or milled about in the courtyard. "You should be ashamed at what you are doing," screamed a woman who was pushing a baby stroller.

Inside the synagogue, hundreds chanted and clapped as a Torah scroll was carried into the synagogue. At midmorning, the building remained packed with protesters. "I believe in the messiah," sang a group of teenage girls. Many cried as they pressed their faces to the curtain covering the Torah.

Veteran residents repeatedly doused the flames raging in garbage containers, and complained that the young die-hards had no right to cause trouble.

In the Morag settlement, troops carried dozens of worshippers out of the local synagogue. Two soldiers escorted out a crying man covered by a prayer shawl. Some kept praying in front of the Torah scroll as soldiers removed others.

An army colonel said troops were determined to evacuate Morag by Wednesday evening, fearing possible mortar fire from nearby Palestinian towns. " The longer we stay here, the more dangerous it is," he said.

Under Israel's plan to leave Gaza and four West Bank settlements, residents were given until midnight Tuesday to leave their homes or face forcible removal and the loss of up to one-third of government compensation. Officials said about half of Gaza's 8,500 settlers left before the deadline.

In Morag, soldiers encountered cement blocks and burning garbage containers, and briefly clashed with residents. But as the day dragged on, protesters gradually surrendered.

Under a weeping willow tree at a children's nursery, mothers clutched their babies, soldiers carried toddlers, settlers ripped their clothes in a mourning ritual and troops loaded diapers and toys onto buses for evacuation.

Several families at the nursery were escorted onto a bus that was headed out of the Gaza Strip as troops entered the community's synagogue to remove settlers.

A female soldier with tears in her eyes held a toddler in her arms, gave him some candy and implored, "Where is his mother?" Another soldier waved away flies from a toddler lying in a stroller.

Soldiers also began removing families from their homes. The women walked out under army escort, while the men let themselves by carried. One resident, Eran Hendel, lay on the floor, read a biblical psalm and ripped his shirt collar in a sign of mourning before being carried away.

In the hardline outpost of Kerem Atzmona, irate settlers employed Nazi-era imagery and appeared to be preparing for a siege, placing barbed wire around their settlement outpost, Kerem Atzmona.

As the soldiers arrived, settlers shouted at them: "Nazi!" " Refuse orders!" and "Jews don't expel Jews."

One settlers ran up to an Orthodox soldier there to deliver packing material, got face-to-face, and shouted: "Aren't you ashamed of yourself? You can't look into my eyes."

In Kfar Darom, another center of fierce resistance, 65 families and 2,000 protesters barricaded themselves behind barbed wire, but said they wouldn't resist violently, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

Elsewhere, there were signs that resistance would be less fierce than expected. In Ganei Tal, some residents said they expected everyone to leave voluntarily by the afternoon. In Tel Katifa, the military reached agreement with residents that they would leave voluntarily, Israel TV said.

In Netzer Hazani, residents requested a 24-hour delay in the evacuation and were in negotiations with government officials. Anita Tucker, a spokesman for the settlement, said residents were seeking adequate short-term housing solutions and assurances that they could leave in a dignified manner.

Security officials said the residents of Netzarim, another hardline settlement, have reached agreement with the military to leave voluntarily next Monday. Some residents denied a deal had been reached.

Once Gaza is cleared of civilians, it will take troops about a month to dismantle military installations and relinquish the coastal strip to Palestinian control.

The pullout is part of Israel's plan to "disengage" from the Palestinians. Israeli leaders say giving up Gaza, which is home to 1.3 million Palestinians, will improve Israeli security.

Palestinians have welcomed the evacuation but who also fear that Israel is trying to draw borders without negotiations.