- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Gleeful Palestinians cheered and laughed from rooftops and windows yesterday as they watched Israeli troops move into the Gaza Strip to force Jewish settlers from the Israeli occupied territory.

“Of course I am happy. I saw at least 500 Israeli soldiers arriving at Tel Katifa to kick settlers out,” said 51-year-old Mohammed Salaqawi, a farmer whose shabby house looks out on the small settlement.

“I will take my land back. I lost greenhouses, which were demolished to make room for the settlement,” said Mr. Salaqawi, dressed in a traditional baggy long robe called a jalabeya. Some of his 16 children scampered nearby to get a better view.

There has been little cause for joy in Gaza since the start of an uprising after talks with Israel failed in 2000. The packed and impoverished territory has been battered by fighting between Israeli troops and militants, its economy broken.

Gaza’s 1.4 million Palestinians have resented nothing more than the presence of the 8,500 settlers behind walls and razor wire to protect against militant attacks.

Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to “disengage” from the conflict, Israeli troops began forced evacuations yesterday. Israel occupied Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.

“I feel like I could fly, I am so happy,” said Abu Ahmed, a father of 10 whose house was demolished by Israeli troops during the uprising.

“Today, their houses are being demolished, and they are being driven out of Gaza. It is payback time,” he said.

Israeli troops have demolished hundreds of buildings during raids into Gaza. The army said they were used for launching attacks.

The Israeli army intends to pull out the last troops from Gaza in early October.

Hamas militants, who claim the pullout as a victory for the Palestinian uprising, pasted posters on Gaza City walls showing a masked gunmen striding across crumbling settlements.

Another Palestinian group, the Islamic Jihad, organized an unprecedented military seaborne parade to celebrate “victory.”

Traveling in about 50 boats, dozens of Islamic Jihad militants brandished Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-launchers, Palestinian flags and enormous black banners, about 500 yards off the Gaza coast.

Mohammed al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader at the event along with hundreds of the group’s members and supporters, told Agence France-Presse that it was the first such flotilla to take to sea since the beginning of the uprising.

The Israeli navy often slaps a maritime blockade on the Gaza coast and usually allows Palestinian fishermen only to sail out as far as eight miles.

Meanwhile, there was little echo of the Gaza celebrations in the West Bank, the other occupied territory that Palestinians want for a state.

Palestinians fear Mr. Sharon’s plan is a ruse to allow Israel to hold onto its far bigger West Bank settlement blocs. Only four of the 120 settlements there, home to 230,000 Jews, are being removed.

About 2.4 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.

Yesterday, a Jewish settler fatally shot four Palestinians in the West Bank settlement of Shilo, drawing a threat of retaliation from Palestinian militants.

Israeli police said the assailant was a driver who had taken Palestinian workers to jobs in the settlement. Once there, he snatched a security guard’s gun and turned it on his passengers. Police later arrested him.

Mr. Sharon vows that Israel will forever keep its biggest settlements and Arab East Jerusalem — which Palestinians want for their capital.

Those areas are steadily being enclosed in a barrier that Israel says stops suicide bombers and Palestinians call a land grab.

“We shouldn’t exaggerate celebrations,” said Sameer al-Bakri, a 42-year-old driver in Hebron, where the Jewish settler movement began and hundreds of settlers live at the very heart of the city.

“We’re happy for our brothers in Gaza, but we can’t celebrate because Israel is creating facts on the ground in the West Bank. How can we celebrate a big lie?”

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