- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

TEL AVIV — Thousands of security forces descended on the northern West Bank settlements of Sanur and Homesh with cranes and bulldozers yesterday, removing several hundred hard-line resisters and completing the evacuation of 25 Israeli settlements weeks ahead of schedule.

The massive show of force and professionalism of the troops overwhelmed the settlers, enabling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to empty the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank to be concluded in just one week and with minimal injuries.

Hoisted by cranes onto rooftops barricaded with barbed wire, the security forces yesterday used water cannons and tear gas to rout dozens of die-hards, who used metal rods and ladders to fend off the evictors.

But fears of an armed confrontation with ultranationalists at Homesh and Sanur never materialized and only 15 persons were injured. Residents of two other West Bank settlements had left voluntarily, making yesterday’s action the last in an operation that had been expected to take three weeks.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, many of whom had been skeptical about the withdrawal plan, celebrated the removal of the settlers yesterday, even as bulldozers began leveling houses in the West Bank communities to ensure that the settlers don’t try to come back.

“There’s no question that in retrospect, the civilian evacuation was carried out faster than expected,” said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, Army chief of staff. “Against the initial assessment of potential violence in these two places, I am happy that we were proven wrong.”

It will be several weeks before the army packs up the last of its equipment and hands over control of the settlements to the Palestinians, Gen. Halutz said. But the evacuation of about 9,000 Jewish settlers from their homes in Gaza and the northern West Bank was by far the most sensitive phase of the withdrawal.

Army and police chiefs said the smooth eviction was due in part to negotiations with settler leaders and rabbis, who were able to persuade their followers to refrain from physical attacks on soldiers.

Instead, the holdouts threw eggs, flour and light bulbs at helmeted policemen who surrounded synagogues in the settlement of Homesh. Demonstrators said police officers used tear gas to clear dozens of protesters off a rooftop at Sanur’s stone citadel.

“It was difficult. We cried a lot,” said Itzik Davidson, a resident of a hilltop settlement who arrived in Sanur last week and was evacuated from the citadel’s rooftop yesterday. “It’s over, but we’ll return to there. It’s like they raped us.”

The four West Bank settlements were nearly abandoned when Mr. Sharon chose them for inclusion in his disengagement plan, but about 2,000 religiously fervent squatters sneaked into Sanur and Homesh in recent weeks.

After the relatively swift evacuation of the Gaza Strip, concern spread that holdouts in Homesh and Sanur would turn to more violent means of resistance than were used in Gaza.

The evacuations marked the first time that Israel has abandoned communities built on territory claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state. U.S. officials hope Mr. Sharon’s unilateral disengagement could give new impetus to the U.S. “road map” peace initiative.

“In the heart of the Middle East, a hopeful story is unfolding,” President Bush said.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called Israeli President Moshe Katsav to congratulate him on the “courageous step” of leaving Gaza. Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon spoke on Monday and agreed to meet soon.

Settler leaders likely will ask themselves why so few Israelis rallied to their side.

“The disturbing thing is the feeling among the public that you can say, ‘Poof,’ and 25 Jewish settlements on the land of Israel are no longer in existence,” said Aryeh Eldad, a member of parliament who relocated to Sanur in the last year.

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