Settlers greet soldiers with angry chants of 'Gestapo'

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The Independent Online

Israel has insisted that its plans to evict settlers remaining in Gaza after midnight tonight remained intact, despite a tactical retreat when protesters disrupted plans to issue individual notices to quit.

The army abandoned plans to deliver the notices house-to-house in Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza, and in three others after demonstrators closed the gates from the inside, locked arms, erected barriers and burnt tyres. The security forces did not even attempt to enter five other settlements whose local leaders told them they would not be welcome.

But Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, declared last night that that the plans for evacuation were "all known, we are ready, and we aren't changing the timetable"

In a televised address, he acknowledged he had previously wanted to hold on to the Gaza settlements but added: "The changing reality in the country, the region, and the world required a different assessment and a change in my position."

While the army is still expecting between 50 and 60 per cent of Gaza's 8,500 settlers to have left their homes by the official deadline ­ midnight tonight ­ it is committed to beginning forcible evacuation of the rest, settlement by settlement, from tomorrow morning.

The possible difficulties of fulfilling the intention to avoid violence when they do the job was underlined yesterday when some 200 demonstrators gathered at the closed gates, outside which groups had slashed the tyres of police vehicles and burnt maps seized from an army pick-up truck.

Shortly after 8am, as a large security force convoy left the Kissufim junction in Gush Katif, some of the demonstrators went outside the gates to upturn rubbish skips to form an improvised barrier.

They shouted abuse ­ including taunts of "Gestapo" and " Nazis" ­ as a black-uniformed police civil order unit arrived at the head of a military convoy and swiftly cleared the barrier for the convoy to advance south towards the settlement of the Morag, one of six where troops had successfully distributed the notices.

The army's determination to carry out disengagement on time, after what the Israeli Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, maintained was the "historic" first day of the process, may be bolstered by the fact that there was little serious violence during the protests and by the rapidly growing numbers of families packing to leave.

Even in the angriest clashes, when police and army officers tried and eventually succeeded in moving into a small section of Neve Dekalim, going through shoving protesters and burning tyres, there were no direct physical attacks on the security personnel. Tyres of a bus carrying journalists were punctured near the religious beach settlement of Shirat Hayam.

Dozens of flatbed lorries, each carrying the two containers allotted to each family to remove their property, were allowed through the gates at midday on their way to the homes of Neve Dekalim families ready to leave. But, once inside, their progress was slowed by groups of protesters, most of them apparently from outside the settlement, the hub of the large Gush Katif settlement block in southern Gaza.

In what appeared to be an organised operation, one teenage girl punctured the tyre of a removal truck before being sped away in a car.

Another lorry was stopped for about 20 minutes during a heated argument and some scuffling in front of the cab with one young man seeking to clear a passage for it yelling at an older, bearded protester: "We have been here for 20 years and you have only been here five days."

The resignation of hundreds of Gush Katif families to leaving was apparent in those villas where household goods were piled up in gardens under large black tarpaulins to prevent damage from the blistering heat.

At one Neve Dekalim home, Pinchas Boidbunz, a kippa-wearing Indian-born Jew who has lived in the settlement for 11 years, declared: "It's not fair. This is a tyrannous act by Ariel Sharon and the government of Israel. We have not even been told where we are going to go."

Mr Boidbunz, who teaches in a religious school and whose family is one of 40 in Gush Katif from Bnei Menasse, converts from Eastern India who link their origins to the lost Menashe tribe of Israel, declared: "I do not accept what has happened. I do not agree with it. But the government has made its decision and the government has the power."

At Gannei Tal, another of the Gush Katif settlements where protesters blocked the security forces' entry, Shlomit Berger, a resident, said: " We told the police and the army that these people are about to be expelled from their homes. And someone who's about to be expelled from his home doesn't open his door and lay out the red carpet."

Despite the decision not to use their ample manpower to force their way into the settlements, the army's southern commander, Dan Harel, declared after watching the stand-off at Neve Dekalim: "We're moving very carefully, very quietly, and, of course, we'll get the job done."

The official orders to quit are not a legal obligation which would delay the eviction ­ and the army appears to think it was not worth the possibility of more serious clashes with the protesters by serving them. There were signs that at least the parliamentary far right was reconciled to disengagement being completed when the prominent Likud would-be leader Uzi Landau said he "apologised" for the failure to prevent the plan going ahead.