Israeli troops smash their way into last two settlements

The security forces broke the back of the resistance at the two militant hilltop settlements of Homesh and Sa-nur in what had been seen as potentially the most difficult phase of an operation which has now boosted the Israeli Prime Minister's standing by being executed way ahead of schedule.

While predictions that protesters would use firearms did not prove correct, the police and the army encountered more determined civil disobedience, barricading of houses and other buildings, and other forms of - mainly - passive resistance than they had in most of the Gaza settlements evacuated last week.

The army said last night that one man had been arrested after attempting to stab a soldier at the religious college here, and there had been a second stabbing attempt somewhere else. By nightfall, the only protesters left were two in Homesh who had clambered up a 30 metre pylon to shout anti-disengagement slogans.

In the last stand against the disengagement process - which began in earnest only a week ago - some of the opponents, mainly drawn from extreme-right youth in other West Bank settlements and in Israel, had coiled barbed wire round houses and public buildings, pelted police and soldiers with eggs, paint, flour and lightbulbs and set fire to skips and at least one car.

In two houses where dozens of clapping, singing religious teenage girls held second-storey sit-ins, the stairs had been destroyed to make their arrest more perilous. In one house police were obliged to create a makeshift staircase of breeze blocks, and in the other a ladder, to bring down the teenage girls, after a local rabbi failed in his reluctant efforts to persuade them to come down.

Several men and women were carried out struggling from their houses after troops broke down the barricaded doors. The overwhelming majority of the 1,320 people removed from the two settlements were infiltrators.

Security forces were forced to lay down a limestone coating on the main roads into and through the settlement after protesters poured oil to slow their advance. In Sa-nur police used teargas as they cleared the roof of the old British police station which protesters were using as their redoubt.

The turning point at Homesh came when specialist border police with visors and riot shields stormed up ladders to cut a two-meter barbed wire fence erected around the roof of the settlement's synagogue where a dozen young adults and children had been leading the verbal abuse and egg-throwing at security forces.

After moving on to the roof the police called up a bulldozer to take the handcuffed adults in its scooped bucket to the ground below. Police forced open the doors of both the synagogue and the religious college next door shortly afterwards and dragged out around 40 protesters from inside.

As the army chief of staff General Dan Halutz said that the demolition of 2,500 houses in Gaza would take place within 10 days, it was clear that the speed of the disengagement has confounded predictions, first that it would not take place at all, and then that it would be a protracted and violent process.

Mr Sharon intends to exploit the success by addressing the UN General Assembly in New York next month. But by breaking the taboo on dismantling any of the settlements, which have grown relentlessly since Israel's seizure of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, the process may fuel international - and some domestic - calls for larger evacuations in the West Bank.

Mr Sharon could seek to deflect such pressure by fulfilling his long-standing promise to the US to dismantle illegal outposts - effectively new mini-settlements which are not openly authorised by the government. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that he was "likely" to start dismantling outposts within 90 days.

At the same time Mr Sharon has repeatedly told his restive Likud party that he intends no further unilateral disengagement and this week once again repeated that building would continue within the largest semi-urban settlement blocks on the West Bank.

The mood of the opposition at Homesh and Sa-nur yesterday may have been affected by the repeated predictions of settlers leaders on the Yesha Council - in the face of equally repeated denials by Mr Sharon - that the evacuations there were the first of many more in the West Bank.

One mother, who would give her name only as Orly and came to Homesh three months ago to join the anti-disengagement protests with her four children, said: "It is horrible that we destroy our lands, our synagogue, that we destroy our homes. The Palestinians will be happy when they see this."

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