SANUR, West Bank, AP – Thousands of troops pushed into houses and makeshift synagogues in two West Bank settlements Tuesday to clear out hundreds of extremists determined to foil Israel”s first dismantling of West Bank settlements.
Police said militants in both strongholds had hoarded firebombs and stun grenades. In Homesh, two army deserters with army-issue weapons were believed inside.
Police with circular saws cut open a barricade of iron bars at the gate to the main synagogue in the Sanur settlement and dragged out some of the dozen youths inside.
Troops also broke into a religious school, carrying out some of the 50 black-garbed ultra-Orthodox men barricaded inside. A police commander was surrounded by weeping and chanting worshippers as he made one last appeal that they leave voluntarily.
Forces were going house to house in nearby Homesh, where militants had fortified the roof of one house with coils of barbed wire. They had also spilled cooking oil on the roads, making it more difficult for troops to gain access.
Children of all ages roamed the streets, enlisted by their parents in what they view as an apocalyptic battle. One baby wailed in the arms of a policewoman who carried the child onto a bus whisking the evacuees away.
Security forces have said they expect the evacuation of Sanur and Homesh to be the most difficult phase of the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements.
Some 10,000 troops have been mobilized to clear out the two settlements, where the withdrawal is being resisted overwhelmingly by Israelis from outside the communities, some of them West Bank youths known for extremism and rejection of the Israeli government”s authority.
Residents of the other two West Bank settlements slated for removal, Ganim and Kadim, have already left on their own. Military bulldozers began knocking down structures in Ganim, the first demolitions in a West Bank settlement.
The West Bank showdown came just hours after the last settlers left Gaza, tearfully but peacefully.
Nine thousand settlers are losing their homes in the pullout. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the plan improves Israel”s security by reducing friction with the Palestinians, and also solidifies Israel”s grip on main West Bank settlement blocs, where most of the territory”s roughly 240,000 settlers live.
The withdrawal from Gaza is changing Israeli-Palestinian borders for the first time in more than two decades. It cleared the way for Palestinian rule there for the first time and rekindled hope for progress toward a peace agreement.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called Sharon late Monday, after the last settlers had left Gaza, praising him for a "brave and historic decision." Abbas suggested renewing negotiations, telling Sharon in their first talk since June, "We are your partner for peace." The two agreed to meet soon, officials from both sides said.
The past five years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed have put the Mideast peace process into a deep freeze, with Israel continuing to build in West Bank settlements and Palestinians failing to curb militant attacks on Israelis — both requirements of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reiterated Tuesday that Palestinians must do more to rein in militant attacks before negotiations can resume.
"There is not doubt that an effort has been made by (the Palestinians) to ensure that there will not be terror during the disengagement," Olmert told Israel Radio on Tuesday, referring to the pullout. "It”s a fact that when they want to (control violence) they are able to do so and therefore they must continue doing this."
Israel is giving up four isolated West Bank settlements, which aren”t connected to any large settlement bloc, "to show our seriousness and willingness to reach a comprehensive agreement" with the Palestinians, said Ranaan Gissin, a senior Sharon adviser.
"If it were only Gaza, there could be the accusation that Israel was ignoring the West Bank," Gissin said.
Sharon has insisted that Israel will hold onto the major West Bank settlement blocs where most Jewish settlers live under any final peace deal.
But the resisters in Sanur and Homesh consider the pullout a dangerous precedent that threatens all Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which the devout see as their God-given right.
Ultranationalist lawmaker Uri Ariel, speaking at Sanur, said settlers had a right to resist. The dismantling of settlements is "a brutal rape, and the one being raped doesn”t have to cooperate with the rapist."
Military bulldozers tore down the gates of the Homesh and Sanur settlements and cleared the way for riot police with shields and clubs, officers on horseback, all-terrain vehicles and water cannons.
At the gate to Sanur, masked youths wearing fringed prayer garments set fire to barricades of tires and mattresses. On a rooftop, a man in religious garb blew a ram”s horn, in an appeal to God. Women clutching babies and pushing strollers boarded waiting buses.
Forces at Sanur knocked down protest tents at the entrance to the settlement. Protesters abandoned the gate to barricade themselves inside an old British police structure known as "the fortress" and readied themselves for a stand against troops.
Youths welded bars onto the building”s open windows, and welded shut its doors in an effort to hold off troops. A banner hung on the building”s facade read, "Damned is he who expels his brother from his home."
Settlers on the roof flew a hand-painted Israeli flag that was taken from a refugee boat in 1947 that was trying to break the British blockade of pre-independence Israel. Painted on a sign under the flag: "The British didn”t succeed in expelling. And you?"
Israel Yitzhak, an area police commander, said only two resident families remained in Sanur, and the rest had come to the settlement from outside to resist the evacuation.
Subhi Alawneh, a 58-year-old farmer from the nearby Palestinian village of Jaba, said Tuesday "is a day of celebration" for the more than 40,000 Palestinians who live near Sanur.
"We were afraid of them all the time," he said, referring to the settlers. "After they are removed we will distribute sweets and show happiness, we will go out into the streets to celebrate."
The pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank represents the first time Israel has abandoned territory the Palestinians claim for their future state.