GADID, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli troops on Friday quickly cleared out a synagogue full of dozens of opponents to the Gaza pullout, avoiding a repeat of previous day”s violence in which youths pelted soldiers with acid, oil and sand in the most violent protest against the withdrawal.
The smooth operation was the latest sign of progress as Israel pushed forward with its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. At the beginning of the day, all but five of the 21 Gaza settlements stood empty, and Israel”s commander for the region, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said he expected all residents could be out by next Tuesday.
The lone mission to clear out Gadid began at sunrise. A few holdout families, along with 60 hardline "reinforcements" from outside Gaza, were the community when the troops entered.
In what has become a familiar scene this week, settlers set two cars, wooden planks, and garbage bins on fire, sending a thick plume of black smoke into the air. "Enjoy the show," said Moses Golden, a protester who threw gasoline on a fire.
A military bulldozer cleared debris, and troops quickly fanned throughout the settlement. Most of the protesters holed up in the settlement”s synagogue, where they were permitted to hold morning prayers. After negotiations with police, the protesters agreed not to resist with force. Police moved into the building and carried the protesters away into waiting buses.
The scene was a sharp contrast to the violent standoffs Thursday in the Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom settlements. Sharon said Thursday”s violence infuriated him and said the rioters would be prosecuted. Investigators would also check "who sent them (the rioters) and who incited them," he told the Haaretz daily.
Sharon said he was saddened when watching the evacuation of Kfar Darom on television. "But in the evening, when I saw the tossing of those bottles of poisonous substances, or harmful substances, and the injury to … soldiers and police, my mood altered and the pain turned to rage," he said.
In Kfar Darom, dozens of protesters had barricaded themselves behind razor wire on the synagogue roof, at first singing and waving flags, then attacking soldiers below with caustic liquids and objects, including paint-filled lightbulbs.
Stunned police and soldiers, shaking in confusion, ripped off their helmets and clothes after being splashed by what police said was acid. Comrades quickly poured water on their heads and bodies. Some of the men gasped for air, and one sat on the floor, seeming disoriented.
To break the siege, army cranes lowered metal cages filled with helmeted troops onto the roof, as cannons sprayed protesters with blasts of blue-tinted water. Other troops carrying wire cutters climbed ladders slick with oil. Then the troops removed the protesters one by one. At Neve Dekalim, troops wrestled for hours against some 1,500 extremists making their last stand inside Gaza”s largest settlement. Protesters lay on the synagogue floor with their arms linked, kicking against the Israeli forces while supporters held their shoulders in a tug-of-war.
After breaking the human chain, troops dragged protesters out of the synagogue, holding them by their arms and legs as they twisted and squirmed. Other protesters chanted "blasphemy, blasphemy."
By Friday morning, Neve Dekalim was virtually empty, with security forces, journalists, a few rabbis and a small number of pullout resisters the only remaining inhabitants.
"It is terribly sad to see the empty streets," said Eitan Ben-Mor, who had come from his home in the Golan Heights a week ago to lend support to the pullout resistance, and planned to leave after the morning prayer.
"The children are missing. The parents are missing," he said. "The most simple things of day-to-day life were taken away cruelly, and by force."
At least 41 police and soldiers and 17 civilians were injured during Thursday”s violence. In Kfar Darom, about 50 people were arrested. Most of the unrest has come from young settler activists from the West Bank who infiltrated Gaza in recent weeks to resist the evacuations.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he was looking for ways to keep the violent youth out of the army, a serious blow to a young Israeli”s standing. "Anyone who assaulted soldiers and police officers is unworthy of wearing the Israeli army”s uniform," he said. Some Israelis were offended that the extremists chose houses of worship for their last stand against the Israeli military. However, experts on Judaism say it”s not necessarily taboo for a synagogue to be used as a place of refuge.
The standoff at the synagogues was a symbolic climax to the withdrawal operation that started Monday, since many of the settlers are Orthodox Jews who believe Gaza is part of the biblical birthright of the Jewish people.
For years, 8,500 Israelis lived among Gaza”s 1.3 million Palestinians in perpetual tension and frequently lethal violence. Sharon said the 38-year occupation of Gaza could no longer be sustained. The Gaza pullout is to be accompanied by the withdrawal from four small West Bank settlements.
In a published interview Friday, Sharon said he has no plans to uproot any more Jewish settlements in the near future. Instead, he said future peacemaking would be based on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
"The burden of proof now rests on the Palestinian side," Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot daily. Although the government has offered temporary housing to uprooted settlers, many refused to cooperate. Many settlers came to Jerusalem on Thursday to pray at the Western Wall, Judaism”s holiest site. Some spent the night sleeping outside in the city”s main public park. "I have absolutely no where to go tonight. I have no house, so I”m coming here to the Western Wall near the Temple Mount to pray for the everlasting house," said Anita Tucker, a former settler from Netzer Hazani. "The holy Temple, that”s the only house I have left, and that”s what I”m going to go for."