Soldiers storm the synagogues to remove Gaza's hardline settlers

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops yesterday forced their way into synagogues in two Gaza settlements and dragged out many hundreds of protestors in a concerted effort to end what could prove among the last bastions of resistance to withdrawal of 8,500 Jews from the Strip.

The army finally had to force its way into one of the synagogues, in Neve Dekalim. Around 800 far-right supporters of the settlers - mainly young illegal infiltrators - had barricaded themselves in.

In a parallel operation in the hard-line settlement of Kfar Darom, soldiers carried protesters from the synagogue. Troops fired water cannon onto others on the roof and raised a cage with a crane to bring them down.

At Neve Dekalim, the army was first obliged to lay sand on the two ramps leading up to the religious complex because young men and women had poured cooking oil on the ramps to make them slippery.

Then around 200 troops locked arms to form a two-deep human wedge across the plaza between the men's and women's synagogues. A second contingent of specially trained forces broke open the men's door and began dragging out male protesters - many kicking and screaming - one by one.

Chanting "A Jew does not expel a Jew", the protesters themselves locked arms and legs while lying on the ground so that the troops had to prise them apart from each other and, in some cases, from furniture inside the synagogue.

Meanwhile, around 200 women and girls waited in their separated place of worship. Many, if not most, of them were teenagers. They whiled away the time before their own eviction by clapping, singing and praying.

As the eviction of males - starting with some middle-aged individuals regarded as advisers - continued, one flailing teenager yelled: "May this be a stain on your hearts."

One soldier, close to collapse, told fellow soldiers: "I can't go on." And the voice of a religious leader blared through the synagogues' speaker system to the arriving soldiers: "Don't evict Jews from this holy place. "

As men were being dragged out from their synagogue, a minority also walked out of their own accord. All were then escorted onto police buses to be ferried out of the Gush Katif settlement block.

Here at least, however, an element of spectacle seemed to accompany the eviction. With neither side using serious violence by yesterday evening as the operation continued over several hours, the arrangement allowed both a bloodless end to the sit-in and an opportunity, in front of a battery of television cameras, for the protesters to show that they were not surrendering willingly.

The army embarked on the synagogue operation - which is likely to bring an early end to the full evacuation of Neve Dekalim - after clearing out most of the houses in the settlement.

Two houses were burned down yesterday, but not by the owners, both of whom appeared to have left several days ago. As one house was being rapidly destroyed by fire, soldiers said that remnants of Molotov cocktails had been found around it, suggesting it was the work of extreme-right protesters. The act is irrelevant since, along with the synagogues, the houses are scheduled to be destroyed anyway.

Although the decision by the protesters to barricade themselves into the synagogues left the army little choice, supporters of the settlers said they were outraged. They claimed that this was an unprecedented operation by Israeli troops to evict Jews from their places of worship.

Hours before the eviction, girls had gathered on the grass to sing the Jewish anthem "Ani Ma'im" which includes the words: "I believe with all my heart in the coming of the Messiah; I believe it in my heart."

David Chan, 58, a surgeon and lieutenant-colonel in the army reserve, is also a self-professed illegal infiltrator into Gush Katif. He said: " I'm really angry. At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem the army released Palestinian murderers because it was a holy place and the army couldn't go there. Here, the army enters a Jewish place. So the Christian Church is holy and the Jewish synagogues are not holy."

The Army finally forced its way into one of Neve Dekalim's synagogues where around 800 far right settler supporters-mainly young illegal infiltrators-had barricaded themselves in as a last stand against the rapidly accelerating evacuation of settlers.

The worst violence in a day which saw the withdrawal proceed with a speed well beyond expectations was in a parallel operation in the synagogue of the hard line settlement of Kfar Darom where 27 police were injured, mainly by acid thrown at them by protesters. Another fell two stories after slipping on oil deliberately put down by illegal infiltrators.

Police who made around 50 arrests at Kfar Darom fired water cannon on protestors who occupied the roof and used a crane to hoist a cage to bring them down after also breaking into the building to evict the hardline opponents of disengagement inside. The southern commander of the Army Dan Harel said the pro-settler violence in Kfar Darom had "crossed all boundaries."

But as the Army said it had effectively evacuated 16 out of the 21 settlements -including the potentially volatile coastal ones of Kfar Yam and Shirat Hayam, and the Bush adminstration congratulated the Sharon adminstration, the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice pointedly sought to use it as a platform for further politicial progress. "Everyone empathizes with what the Israelis are facing," Ms Rice said, but added "It cannot be Gaza only

In Neve Dekalim around 200 troops moved in tolock ed arms to form a two deep human wedge across the plaza between the settlement's two synagogues, separately occupied by men and women,before a second contingent of specially trained forces broke open the door and began bydragging out the male protesters-many literally kicking and screaming-- out one by one..

The Army was first obliged to lay sand on the two ramps leading to the religious complex because young men and women had poured cooking oil on them in an attempt to make them imassably slippery. Chanting "A Jew does not expel a Jew" the protesters themselves locked arms and legs while lying on the ground so that the troops had to prise them apart from each other. .

Some200 clapping women and girls-many weeping but fewer physically resisting-were separately evicted by women soldiers.As the eviction of males-starting with some middle aged men regarded as advisers to the protesters-continued one flailing teenager yelled out: "May this be a stain on your hearts" Another soldier, close to collapse, told fellow soldiers "I can't go on." Meanwhile the voice of a religious leader declaring to the arriving soldiers: " Don't evict Jews from this holy place" blared through the synagogue's speaker system.

In Neve Dekalim at least, however, there appeared to be an element of stage management. With neither side using serious violence by yesterday evening as the operation continued over five hours, the arrangement allowed the Armya bloodless end to the sit-in and and the settlers an opportunity in front of a battery of domestic and international television cameras to demonstrate that they were not willingly surrendering.

The Army embarked on the operation-which is likely to bring an early end in sight to the evacuation in Neve Dekalim-after evacuating the majority of houses in the settlement. Two houses were burned down here yesterday-but in neither case by the owners who appeared to have departed several days ago. As one house was rapidly destroyed by fire-an irrelevant act since the houses, along with the synagogues are soon to be reduced to rubble-soldiers said that remnants of Molotov cocktails had been found, suggesting it was caused by extreme right protestors.

Although the decision by the protestors to barricade themselves into the synagogue left the Army little choice, supporters of the settlers said they were outraged at what they claimed was an unprecedented operation by Israeli troops to evict Jews from their place of worship. Hours before the eviction as girls gathered on the grass to sing the famous Jewish anthem Ani Ma'im "I believe with all my heart in the coming of the Messiah; I believe it in my heart" Dr David Chan, a 58 year old self professed illegal infiltrator into Gush Katif, who is a vascular surgeon and a lieutenant-colonel in the army reserve said: "I am really angry. At the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem the Army released Palestinian murderers because it was a holy place and they couldn't go. Here the Army enters a Jewish place. So the Christian Church is holy and the Jewish synagogues are not holy."

Meanwhile the right-wing extremist Aryeh Yitzhaki, who had barricaded himself on the roof of his Kfar Yam house with forty other people, an M16 rifle and two other guns, left his home after it was stormed by military and police,

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