- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

NETZARIM, Gaza Strip — The last Jewish settlement in Gaza was evacuated yesterday, wrapping up Israel’s historic pullout from the coastal strip after settlers held a farewell march behind Torah scrolls and a massive menorah, then boarded armored buses and left.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke by telephone and expressed their commitment to peace — the first conversation between the two since the pullout started, a senior Palestinian negotiator said.

The leaders spoke for about five minutes, with Mr. Abbas telling Mr. Sharon, “We are your partners for peace,” negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

The settlers left Netzarim in a caravan of buses with Israeli flags poking out of darkened bulletproof windows and private cars and trucks loaded with belongings.

The 600 residents of the farming community, one of Gaza’s first settlements, put up no fight after reaching an agreement with the military on a quiet departure, in contrast to the struggle put up last week in Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom.

“It’s tougher to see them go quietly, not fighting,” said Hagai Dotan, the police commander overseeing the evacuation.

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of Israel’s southern command, declared the evacuation of Gaza over.

“We completed today the evacuation of the Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Gen. Harel said it would take several weeks before the Israeli military dismantles its bases and hands over the territory to the Palestinians.

An exultant Mr. Abbas told a group of wounded Palestinian fighters that the evacuation of Gaza and four small West Bank settlements was only the beginning of the end of Israel’s occupation.

“We will not close our eyes. We will not rest until they leave all our land,” he said.

More than 5,000 troops, meanwhile, headed to two militant West Bank settlements to be evacuated today. Security forces braced for confrontations, saying 2,000 ultranationalist youths holed up there planned to resist violently. Security officials said militants had hoarded stun grenades and tear-gas canisters and planned to hurl burning tires onto rivers of cooking oil.

Forces began evacuating the 21 Gaza settlements last week, more than a year after Mr. Sharon concluded Israel could no longer defend its 38-year-old occupation of the coastal strip, which Palestinians claim as part of a future state.

Speaking to evacuating troops Sunday, Mr. Sharon said there would be no further unilateral withdrawals. The next step would be a return to the stalled internationally backed “road map” peace plan, he said.

A senior government official confirmed a Jerusalem Post newspaper report quoting Mr. Sharon as saying Israel would continue to build in the West Bank — a policy that has put him into conflict with the United States.

The newspaper quoted Mr. Sharon as saying the Ariel bloc, near Tel Aviv, “will remain a part of Israel forever, connected territorially to Israel.” The Maaleh Adumim bloc outside Jerusalem, he said, “will continue to grow and be connected to Jerusalem.”

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