- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip — In a day laden with emotion and history, Israeli soldiers began the evacuation of Gaza yesterday by hauling weeping Jewish settlers from their homes and synagogues, defying walls of outraged residents screaming insults and abuse.

Anger over Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip after a 38-year military occupation stretched into the West Bank settlement of Shilo, where a Jewish settler grabbed the gun of a security guard and killed four Palestinians and wounded another.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denounced the attack as Jewish terrorism aimed at torpedoing the withdrawal he had ordered from Gaza and areas of the West Bank. But the evacuation itself, he acknowledged, was “impossible to watch … without tears in the eyes.”

The first forced removal of Jewish settlers in nearly 20 years began at daylight as columns of unarmed police and soldiers in baseball caps quietly fanned out in the streets of Neve Dekalim, pushing aside burning tires and trash cans set aflame by settler youths.

On the last day in their homes, residents ripped their clothes in mourning while lines of soldiers stood at attention in a sign of respect for the evacuees.

In a final desperate bid to stop the disengagement, a 60-year-old settler set herself on fire at a police roadblock in southern Israel, suffering life-threatening injuries. In the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom, several hundred settlers went on a rampage, pushing large cinder blocks off a bridge and trying to set fire to an Arab house, witnesses said.

Israeli troops brought the fire under control and tried to push the settlers back into Kfar Darom as Palestinians threw stones, the Associated Press reported.

Despite the bitterness of the settlers, resistance was mostly passive on the first day of the operation.

“It went peacefully and fairly smoothly,” said a military spokesman. “If this trend continues, then we are looking at a shorter time frame than was previously estimated” for completing the job.

Friction continued into the night, however. Shortly after midnight a band of 15 settler youths punctured the tires of three trucks and thew paintballs at a passenger bus parked outside an improvised military base.

Security forces yesterday began evacuating six of the 21 Gaza settlements — Neve Dekalim, Morag, Tel Katifa, Ganei Tal, Keren Atzmona and Bedolah — emptying all but the first.

Half of Neve Dekalim’s population of 3,000 had been removed by nightfall, while another 1,000, mostly from outside the settlement, held out in the community’s main synagogue. Settler leaders and police tried to negotiate a voluntary departure from the building, hoping to avoid a confrontation today.

Crowds of settlers heckled the soldiers, likening them to Nazis, while some of the security officers broke down in tears at the sight of pregnant women and children being evicted.

Palestinian leaders said they would not retaliate for the deaths of the four persons killed by West Bank settler Asher Weisgan, 40, whose regular job involved transporting Palestinian workers to an industrial zone.

Authorities said he stopped at a checkpoint, seized a gun from a soldier at knifepoint, and opened fire, killing two workers in his car and two others outside it. Another worker was wounded.

In Neve Dekalim, settler leaders appeared reconciled to their fate as they awaited their removal at their central synagogue.

“With faith, everything can be changed,” said Lior Kalpha, a Neve Dekalim settlement council member who had been briefed on the eviction plan by the army just hours earlier. “But realistically, it’s all over.”

Standing on a synagogue dais above the sobs of hundreds of young women, Rabbi Motti Elon pulled a prayer shawl around him and bent over in agony.

“This holy ark will be destroyed, but hearts cannot be destroyed,” said the Jerusalem rabbi, speaking into a megaphone. “We will continue. We are only at the beginning of the path.”

Torah scrolls were paraded out of the synagogue — symbolizing the approaching destruction of the synagogue, as the female congregants chanted a hymn of comfort amid spiritual distress: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though He may be delayed, I believe.”

On their last morning in their house, Tamar Meir finished cleaning the dishes from the previous night’s dinner and prepared to bake a loaf of challah bread. There was no clue in the physical appearance of the house that in a matter of hours the family would be removed.

Pictures remained on the walls, religious books jammed a shelf, and a rainbow bouquet of balloons lay under the stairwell.

“It’s a regular day,” Mr. Meir said as a bus with evacuees passed outside his windows. “Our life would be stopped if we were to take down the pictures.”

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