NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip, AP – Thousands of Israeli security forces burst through makeshift blockades and poured into four Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday, beginning the forcible removal of protesters who refused orders to leave the area ahead of a deadline.
Troops, accompanied by bulldozers, marched in formation and took up positions throughout Neve Dekalim, Gaza”s largest settlement, where about 2,000 protesters had barricaded themselves inside the main synagogue. In the Morag settlement, soldiers pushed through a barrier and dragged away protesters.
At Neve Dekalim, hundreds of troops began grabbing settlers and pushing them into buses. A young woman who refused to leave her home was carried out by four female soldiers as she shouted: "I don”t want to, I don”t want to."
The Gaza army commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, walked with the troops in Neve Dekalim. "We are not leaving until the settlement has been evacuated," he said.
Some 14,000 troops were en route to Jewish settlements in what security officials said was an attempt to clear out the communities in just a few days, far more quickly than initially planned. Eval Giladi, a senior government official, said it was possible all of Gaza”s 21 settlements could be emptied within two days.
By 9 a.m., troops had entered at least four of the settlements. While some communities showed signs of cooperation, fierce resistance was expected elsewhere, with residents erecting makeshift barricades and climbing onto rooftops to thwart the military operation.
Neve Dekalim, the scene of violent clashes on Tuesday, has emerged as the focus of resistance in recent days. In addition to defiant residents, hundreds of pullout opponents, many of them fervently religious teenagers from the West Bank, have converged on the settlement.
Early Wednesday, the protesters gathered in the settlement”s main synagogue for morning prayers. The crowd then began singing and clapping, chanting that expulsion would not happen. Protesters were told over loudspeakers to assume their positions, indicating a plan of resistance has been devised.
As the troops approached, young protesters set two garbage containers on fire. 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. Other women wore plastic signs saying "victim," and chanted "You won”t be able to look at yourselves in the mirror," as the soldiers walked by.
Veteran residents repeatedly doused the flames in the garbage containers, and complained that the young die-hards had no right to cause trouble.
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. The settlers are being provided with new homes and other compensation. Officials said about half of Gaza”s 8,500 settlers left the area before the deadline, and three settlements were empty.
Early Wednesday, the holdout settlers anxiously awaited the arrival of troops. In the Morag and Kerem Atzmona settlements, protesters blocked the roads with overturned garbage containers, cement blocks and tree branches. Several Morag residents climbed onto the roofs of their homes.
The troops burst through the cinderblock blockade in Morag, forming a human chain that pushed back a line of settlers. Soldiers carried protesters away.
In Morag, resident Yaron Zidin poured gas on a barricade of trash cans, wood and garbage. "Hurry, hurry they are coming," he said. "They said they would come in peace. Instead they come with force. I don”t understand how we trust anyone in this country anymore."
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.
Police spokesman Avi Zelba said 128 families in the settlements of Neve Dekalim and Netzer Hazani had reached an agreement with authorities to leave voluntarily. In Netzer Hazani, community spokeswoman Anita Tucker said residents would receive 400 shipping containers and move out on Thursday.
Security officials said the residents of Netzarim, a 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, who have welcomed the evacuation but who also fear that Israel is trying to draw borders without negotiations.
Israeli leaders have said giving up Gaza and removing Israelis from their homes is painful, but essential for Israel”s security. "I look with hope to the future, that the price we are paying … will in the end bring about a positive change in Israel”s situation," said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
In the hours leading up to the forcible evacuation, soldiers fanned out through Neve Dekalim, the epicenter of resistance. Commanders carried maps, and troops took up positions near the industrial zone, linking arms to form a cordon. Other soldiers went house-to-house, trying to persuade residents one last time to leave voluntarily.
At times, settlers and soldiers were reduced to tears as they argued over the wisdom of abandoning Gaza, Israeli-occupied land for 38 years and the focus of deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.
In the runup to forcible removal, Israeli troops had distributed eviction notices on Monday and Tuesday, and urged settlers to seize a last chance to leave voluntarily. In some of the enclaves, settlers invited the soldiers into their homes. In others, there was resistance.
Settlers in several farming communities burned their greenhouses and homes rather than leave them behind. One man punched holes in the walls of his house with a sledgehammer.
The fiercest resistance Tuesday came from some 5,000 Jewish nationalists who slipped into Gaza in recent weeks to reinforce the anti-withdrawal camp. Police handcuffed several withdrawal opponents in Neve Dekalim, seeming to target the infiltrators.
Palestinians held noisy demonstrations in Gaza City to celebrate the pullout. Young men cruised the city in open cars, some firing rifles into the air and brandishing rocket launchers.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told his Cabinet he was forming eight teams to coordinate the takeover of settlement land, including representatives of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.
The Gaza withdrawal is a landmark moment in the Mideast conflict. Although Israel has relinquished other land captured in 1967 to Egypt, in exchange for a peace treaty, this is the first Israeli pullout from territory claimed by Palestinians for their own state.
Sharon”s critics say he is giving away Gaza and getting nothing in return. Some say Gaza is part of the Jews” biblical heritage, and Sharon has no right to abandon it.