Settlers block soldiers with eviction notices

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The Independent Online

Defiant Jewish settlers locked the gates to their communities, formed human chains and burned tyres to block troops from delivering eviction notices today, as Israel began its historic pullout from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation.

Police and soldiers waited patiently in the sweltering sun and avoided confrontation at the behest of their commanders. In one scene, a sobbing settler pleaded with a brigadier general not to evict him before the two men embraced.

"It's a painful and difficult day, but it's a historic day," said Israel's Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Over the next three weeks, Israel plans to remove all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank. The withdrawal marks the first time Israel will dismantle settlements in areas captured in the 1967 Mideast War and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.

While the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the pullout will improve Israel's security, Jewish settlers fiercely oppose the plan and have promised stiff, but nonviolent resistance.

Israeli troops fired in the air Monday to keep back hundreds of Palestinians, including a few dozen masked gunmen, who were marching toward southern Gaza's Gush Katif bloc of settlements in celebration of the impending withdrawal. The crowd burned a cardboard model of an Israeli settlement, complete with an army watchtower.

In Gaza City, the Islamic militant group Hamas hung banners proclaiming the pullout is a result of attacks by militants on Israelis. "The blood of martyrs has led to liberation," one banner said.

Thousands of Israeli troops marched into Gaza's settlements, delivering eviction notices in six settlements, but encountering protests in others. The notices gave settlers until midnight Tuesday to leave. If they ignore the deadline, they will be removed by force and could lose up to a third of government compensation.

Resistance was stiff in Gush Katif. Hundreds of settlers blocked the gates of Neve Dekalim, Gaza's largest settlement, to prevent the forces from entering.

Dozens of observant Jewish men, wearing white prayer shawls, held morning prayers at the gate, appealing for divine intervention to block the withdrawal. A crowd of youths wearing orange, the color of defiance, sat on the streets and screamed at the soldiers. "You're a partner to a crime," screamed one protester.

Troops moved into the community through a second entrance, only to be blocked by crowds who burned tires and formed human chains. When a small group of soldiers managed to enter, settlers took the eviction notices and burned them. One policeman was covered in green paint thrown by protesters.

Despite the standoff, there were signs that residents would leave before the deadline. A convoy of moving trucks drove in through the main gate. Sevne vehicles passed through before the crowd stopped the convoy.

"This morning, the people stood up to the police and it was a victory. Now the (shipping) containers are coming in. It is heartbreaking and negative," said Yosef Meron, 68, of Neve Dekalim.

Military commanders listened to the settlers' appeals, but said they would not be deterred.

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, Israel's commander over the Gaza region, said the operation was going as anticipated. "Our estimation is that by tomorrow night most of the residents will agree to leave," he said.

Harel attempted to talk to residents of Neve Dekalim, but was hastily escorted away by police after he was confronted by angry settlers.

Although many of Gaza's 8,500 residents have already left, the army estimates that thousands remain, including some 5,000 hardliners who have infiltrated Gaza to resist the pullout. Much of Monday's resistance appeared to come from the outsiders.

At the tiny, isolated Morag settlement, hundreds of people blocked troops at the gate. One man, identified by Israeli media as Liron Zeidan, burst into tears as he pleaded with officers not to remove him from his home.

"I am not your enemy. I served as an officer under you," the man told Brig. Gen. Erez Zuckerman, the commander of the army unit waiting at the gate.

Zuckerman listened and wiped sweat off his brow, then hugged the young man. "We love you, you are part of us," he told the assembled settlers.

In nearby Netzer Hazani, Alan Sherr, a Philadelphia native who moved to Gaza in 1979, hung an American flag upside-down outside his home. Sherr, wearing a Philadelphia Eagles cap, said he was protesting President George W. Bush's support for the withdrawal plan.

"I'm feeling every negative emotion in the English dictionary," said Sherr. "I have no more happiness and no more pride. They have taken it all away."

Resistance was much more subdued in the settlements of Nissanit, Elei Sinai and Dugit, secular communities in northern Gaza that were virtually emptied out.

In Nissanit, four soldiers came to the home of Yitzhak and Avigail Dadon, a couple in their 70s who said they would leave before the forcible removal begins. Yitzhak Dadon said that earlier in the morning, he lowered an Israeli flag that had been fluttering from his roof. Avigail Dadon cried, and a female soldier stood up to hug her.

Two residents entered an abandoned home, took out a hammer and smashed the remaining mirrors, doors and windows. Some homes were covered in graffiti, including one that read "Sharon is a Nazi."

Soldiers also helped settlers pack. In one Nissanit home, troops removed a large sundeck next to a backyard swimming pool, pulling out planks and stacking them up in a pile.

In Elei Sinai, one man put lawn chairs and a TV set on the roof, where he said he would remain with his young daughter until he is removed by force. "Elei Sinai won't fall," read a large sign outside his home.

Soldiers were also giving eviction notices in four West Bank settlements slated for evacuation. They chose not to enter two of the communities, Sanur and Homesh, where hard-line extremists have holed up. The army instead planned to hand the orders to community leaders.

Israel's Cabinet met Monday and gave final approval for the removal of additional Gaza settlements in what was seen as a formality. The plan was already approved by the government and parliament during a bruising yearlong political battle.

With some 50,000 security forces involved, the "disengagement" from Gaza is the nation's largest-ever noncombat operation.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said the Gaza pullout is a "historical moment," but that Israel must also hand over the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the future.

"If they want peace, they must allow Palestinians to achieve their rights," Abbas told the BBC World Service.

The Palestinians hope the pullout from Gaza will lead to the resumption of peace talks, and ultimately full independence in areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

But they fear the withdrawal is a ploy by Sharon to get rid of areas he doesn't consider crucial to Israel while consolidating control of parts of the West Bank, where most of the 240,000 Jewish settlers live.