NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip, AP -Thousands of Israeli troops marched into Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip on Monday, as Israel began its historic pullout from the coastal territory. Soldiers delivered eviction notices in some communities but encountered locked gates and protesters in others.
Hundreds of Jewish settlers, many praying and singing, blocked the gates of Neve Dekalim, Gaza”s largest settlement, promising fierce but nonviolent resistance. In other communities, hysterical residents, many wearing orange — the color of defiance — tearfully implored soldiers not to carry out their orders.
Military commanders listened quietly to the settlers” appeals, but said they would not be deterred.
"We will reach every settler, just as we have planned," said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, Israel”s commander over the Gaza region. "We will see how we will crack this particular nut," referring to a standoff at Neve Dekalim.
After months of political wrangling and mass protests, the Gaza pullout began at midnight Sunday, when soldiers lowered a red road barrier at the Kissufim border crossing between Israel and Gaza, signaling it had become illegal for Israeli civilians to be in Gaza.
Over the next month, Israel plans to remove all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four small enclaves in the West Bank. The withdrawal marks the first time Israel would dismantle settlements in areas captured in the 1967 Mideast War and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believes the withdrawal will improve Israeli security by reducing friction with the Palestinians. Jewish settlers fiercely oppose the withdrawal, with many accusing the government of abandoning territory promised to the Jews by God.
"It”s a painful and difficult day, but it”s a historic day," Israel”s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, told Army Radio.
Troops fanned out across Gaza early Monday to deliver the eviction notices, though the army decided at the last minute not to enter four hard-line communities and a fifth settlement that has already emptied out. The army said it would deliver the notices to community leaders in the four settlements where the most resistance is expected.
The notices gave residents until midnight Tuesday to leave voluntarily. Those ignoring the that deadline face forcible removal by the army and could lose up to one-third of government compensation.
The first eviction notices were served in Nissanit and Elei Sinai, secular communities in northern Gaza that have virtually emptied out. Troops entered without encountering resistance, though one man rushed out of his home as they approached. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," said the man, who only gave his first name, Yossi.
Resistance was much stiffer in Neve Dekalim. Dozens of men wrapped in white prayer shawls held roadside morning prayers at sunrise, hoping that divine intervention would somehow prevent the withdrawal, while orange-clad teens danced in circles.
"Who dares to do battle with God," read one protester”s T-shirt. "Brother, don”t expel me," said another.
As masses of soldiers and police moved on foot and horseback toward the community, crowds of residents sat together at the main entrance and placed overturned garbage containers in the road to prevent the troops from entering.
Troop commanders said they would try to avoid confrontation. "We have no intention of using violence," said police commander Meir Ben Ishai.
At the isolated Morag settlement, hundreds of residents blocked troops at the gate. One man burst into tears as he pleaded with officers not to remove him from his home. "I am not your enemy. I served as an officer under you," the man told Brig. Gen. Erez Zuckerman, the commander of the army unit waiting at the gate.
Zuckerman listened and wiped sweat off his brow, then hugged the young man. "We love you, you are part of us," he told the assembled settlers.
At the Netzer Hazani settlement, about 300 settlers gathered just behind the main gate, including about 60 men praying near a table with a Torah scroll on it. Two cars and tractor were parked across the road to try to block advancing troops.
Shouting over a megaphone, one man urged residents to resist but not to curse or use violence against troops. "In the name of God, don”t let them in. Do everything you can," the man said. "In the name of God, don”t let them in. Do everything you can."
While many of Gaza”s 8,500 residents have already left, the army estimates that several thousand people remain, including extremists who have infiltrated Gaza. Authorities fear some of the extremists could turn violent.
With some 50,000 security forces involved, the "disengagement" from Gaza is the nation”s largest-ever noncombat operation. Israel”s Cabinet was to meet later Monday and give final approval for removal of additional Gaza settlements in a step seen as a formality.
Thousands of Palestinian police, meanwhile, moved into positions near Jewish settlements to keep away Palestinian crowds and prevent attacks by militants during the pullout — something that Israel warned would bring harsh retaliation.
Palestinian residents watched settlers packing up, and seeing moving trucks leave settlements dispelled the skepticism many Palestinians felt until the last minute.
Hundreds of supporters of the militant Islamic Jihad group celebrated in Gaza City on Sunday, with gunmen firing in the air, and teens setting off fire crackers and distributing sweets. The violent Hamas group organized special midnight prayers of thanks at Gaza mosques.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas offered the Israelis reassurance.
"We tell the Israeli people, `You have chosen the right path,”" he told Channel 10 TV. "Don”t listen to the voices of the extremists who want a continuation of the occupation. I don”t want — and I will not accept — any clashes with the army or the settlers."
However, there were exchanges of fire early Monday between soldiers and Palestinians near the Kfar Darom settlement, and mortar shells fell in two settlements and near an army base. No casualties were reported.
Many hope the pullout from the territory Israel captured in 1967 will be the start of a true partition of historic Palestine between Arab and Jew.
Others fear it is a ploy by Sharon to get rid of areas he doesn”t consider crucial to Israel while consolidating control of parts of the West Bank, where the vast majority of the 240,000 Jewish settlers live. Sharon has repeatedly said large West Bank settler blocs will remain part of Israel "forever and ever."
The Palestinians want to create their own state out of the Gaza Strip and all of the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as their capital.