- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip — Israel began a landmark evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip early today right after a midnight deadline expired, sending soldiers into Neve Dekalim, the largest Gaza settlement, to pack up and bus out residents wishing to leave voluntarily.

The Israeli army said it would begin the eviction by clearing out this settlement — one of 21 Gaza communities — because it has attracted thousands of Israelis who plan to resist the evacuation. The enforced removal of residents is expected to begin later today.

“We are moving to the phase of the coerced evacuation, but not with force,” said Gen. Dan Harel, the chief of the army’s southern command. Neve Dekalim has become a difficult fortress for opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to relinquish control of the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank.

A convoy of armored vehicles miles long made its way into the Gaza Strip just hours before the start of the evacuation. Israeli army radio reported that not since the 1973 Arab-Israel war had there been such a large presence of military vehicles in southern Israel.

The withdrawal from Gaza is the first time Israel has relinquished territories claimed by Palestinians as part of their future state. The U.S. hopes that the pullback will spur momentum behind its “road map” peace plan.

But Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz cautioned the Palestinians. “I want to say to them, don’t hurry up and celebrate,” he said.

“There will be a gap of about four weeks or a month between the time we evacuate the residents.”

As the final hours before the deadline slipped away, an eerie silence fell over most of the settlement. Soldiers knocked on doors, serving eviction orders encouraging residents to leave their houses before police and military forces returned later in the day to physically remove settlers if necessary.

Some residents calmly told soldiers that they would not leave because of their deep disagreement with Mr. Sharon’s evacuation plan. Settlers who stay behind risk a fine of more than $100,000.

“There are things that are more valuable than money,” said one resident.

Other residents reluctantly boarded buses to leave their homes forever. Two teenagers wailed and screamed at soldiers through a bus window as they waited to be carted away.

“Remember this day. I swear I will return to this place,” said Moriah Altah, a resident. “I will come back even if I have to die along the way.”

Other residents painted graffiti on the walls of their homes that read: “The evacuation equals a prize for terror.”

Meanwhile, teenagers and young adults streamed into the settlement’s central synagogue, where outsiders who have reached Gaza settlements in recent weeks hope to make a final stand.

The last 24 hours before the evacuation were marked by sporadic clashes between police and protesters. Those resisting the evacuation set tires and trash bins ablaze to delay the advance of security forces.

A joint detachment of police, military police and soldiers formed a phalanx, pushing back protesters into the settlement’s main road, while linking arms to keep onlookers on the sidewalks.

One policeman was injured when demonstrators threw benzene on his face; they also pelted water tanks with paint.

Police said about 50 protesters were arrested. Outside Gaza, hundreds of protesters were nabbed trying to sneak in before the evacuation.

While settler leaders pleaded with protesters to disperse, residents complained about the inconvenience.

“You aren’t protecting us,” one resident shouted in disgust.

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