Israel acts to press settlers to leave Gaza

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 16-Aug-05 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

An army officer Monday comforted Shosh Masicka, who received an eviction notice, in her house in the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai.
GAN OR, Gaza Thousands of Israeli police officers and soldiers moved to surround the Israeli settlements of Gaza on Monday, warning residents that they had until early Wednesday to leave before they are pulled out of their homes.

The officers, some of them wearing new blue caps emblazoned not with their service insignia but with the Israeli flag, presented a show of force but avoided confrontation with the settlers and their supporters, many of them young and emotional.

But there were some fierce arguments between settlers and supporters who have moved in from the West Bank in the last few weeks. There were angry clashes as some settlers demanded that moving vans and the army be allowed to enter this settlement to help them pack up and move, while the younger West Bankers attempted to block the roads and sometimes slash the tires of official vehicles with knifes or "ninjas," nail-studded blocks of wood.

The gates to most of the settlements were closed to officials, and the soldiers and police said they would not attempt to open them now, but negotiated throughout the day with community leaders in places like this one and Morag to allow some officers in to deliver the required notices and moving vans to ease the evacuation.

In some cases, the officers simply handed the notices to the head of the settlement to distribute. In the case of some particularly militant settlements, like Kfar Darom, which made it clear that the police and army would not be welcome, officers did not even approach.

As the searing heat of Gaza bore down, there were tearful scenes of remonstration, prayer and conversation between the residents, many of them in sweat-soaked orange T-shirts, and the troops, some of them quietly admitting that they would like to be elsewhere, fighting crime and terrorism instead of confronting their fellow citizens.

Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and four smaller settlements in the West Bank will mark the first time that Israel will have pulled out of areas conquered in the 1967 war, some of the land considered by the Palestinians to be a part of their future state. But many of the settlers here regard Gaza as part of the biblical land of Israel granted Jews by God, and the pullout as a betrayal of its finest citizens by the state.

Moshe Weiss shouted at a commander of the police special forces: "Nazis in black are standing facing me!"

"You look just like the photos of Nazis facing Jews!" shouted Weiss, who was born in Bulgaria. "They killed my whole family in black suits like this!"

The commander, Meir ben Yishai, pulled Weiss aside and tried to calm him, saying, "Moshe, Moshe, this is the uniform of the state of Israel's special forces."

Yishai said moments later: "It's what we're expecting, and we won't break our word. That's the way he feels; it's his choice to see it that way. And he's shouting at people who feel and who are hurt with him, but who have a job to do."

Stopped on a roadside, Major General Dan Harel, the southern commander of the army, said he intended to start slowly.

"We have all the time in the world today, so we'll go and try to talk to them, and offer our help to leave," he said. "We have two days, and then we are in a very different mode."

On Wednesday morning, officials say, special teams of the army and the police will move in large numbers into settlements, their order and number to be determined day to day. They will escort - or force - any remaining civilians away.

Armored vehicles and bulldozers will quickly push over fencing around settlements, avoiding the gates where the demonstrators sat Monday, and seal each settlement.

Some smaller settlements, even if they do more than passively resist, will be overwhelmed with superior, though unarmed forces.

"There is no enemy here," said a senior police official near Morag. "We will do everything with sensitivity, but we will do it. It's impossible for the state to fail."

On Monday evening, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave a short televised address to the nation, saying that he initiated the pullout, however painful, because of changing realities. "I concluded that this action was vital for Israel," he said.

He praised the settlers as noble pioneers and the army and the police for showing "sensitivity and patience." The pullout "has caused severe wounds, bitter hatred between brothers and severe statements and actions," Sharon said.

"I understand the feelings, the pain and the cries of those who object," he said. "However, we are one nation, even when fighting and arguing."

It is the Palestinians who must now "bear the burden of proof," he insisted. "The world awaits the Palestinian response - a hand offered in peace or continued terrorist fire," Sharon said. "To a hand offered in peace, we will respond with an olive branch. But if they chose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever."

The army says it hopes to finish the process by Sept. 4; some believe it will be concluded more quickly, especially if Palestinians militants do not disrupt the process with mortar or rocket attacks.

Also on Monday, the Israeli cabinet took its last vote authorizing the pullout from all 21 Gaza settlements. The discussion was brief, and the vote was 16 to 4, said the housing minister, Isaac Herzog.

"It's a military operation now," Herzog said in a telephone interview. "On Tuesday night, they can decide for themselves which settlements to evacuate."

Herzog said that temporary housing would be available and that at least 50 percent of the residents would have left on their own before Wednesday.

"But it's absolutely clear to me that there will be very difficult moments," he said, especially with the first two generations of people born after 1967, who have been brought up in a different culture of patriarchal, communal and religious leadership.

"The big question is whether this Gaza action will alienate this generation or not," Herzog said. "I personally believe they will overcome it. But the question is also whether their rabbis will pump into their heads that the state betrayed them, or whether they will be more responsible."

As painful as this Gaza pullout has already been, the 9,000 settlers here are dwarfed by the 220,000 living in the West Bank beyond the 1967 boundaries, as well as 200,000 more living in East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel, who are considered illegal settlers by much of the world.

"It's a painful and difficult day, but it's a historic day," Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said on army radio.

Here in Gan Or, Dani Dimri, his eyes wild, shouted at residents to let the army enter to help him pack his house. Finally, the residents relented.

Marc Zell said: "Everyone is on edge. We have a lot of respect and good feelings for the army and to some extent for the police. But we don't know what they're planning. So when people ostensibly wanted the army to come in and allegedly help them to move, we worried it could be a trick."

But in principle, Zell said, every family must have the right to make its own choice. "The families here can't be coerced," he said. "They've been through hell, with the terrorism and the way the government has treated them."