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Israeli troops, police roust last-ditch Gaza resisters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KFAR YAM, Gaza Strip - Israeli police and soldiers used riot gear, water cannons and bulldozers yesterday to force out Jewish settlers who had barricaded themselves in synagogues, on rooftops and in homes in a last-ditch effort to stop Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

In Kfar Darom, one of the most die-hard settlements, protesters and residents made a fortress on the synagogue's rooftop, encircling it in concertina wire and hurling down paint, bricks and what police believe was acid on approaching officers, slightly injuring more than 40. Police used water cannons to repel the protesters before plucking them off the roof with a crane and steel cage.

In Kfar Yam, security officials were preparing for an equally tough battle with a settler who had barricaded himself with his family and neighbors on his rooftop, threatening to use an assault rifle and other weapons to protect his seaside home. In the end, negotiators persuaded him to surrender his weapons. Instead of using bullets, the settlers pelted security officials with flour, eggs and chocolate.

Yesterday, the second day of forced evacuations, Israel deployed more than 15,000 troops to force out residents and protesters from 17 of Gaza Strip's 21 settlements. Despite the violence, the operation was moving quicker than authorities had predicted.

"All in all, this is a victory for the security forces and the settlers together because they are keeping the confrontation to such levels that are something we only wished for before we started this operation," said Israeli army Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, who is overseeing the withdrawal operation.

Harel said Israel's security forces planned to evacuate one more settlement today before breaking this afternoon and tomorrow for the Sabbath.

Next week, the forces will likely tackle the isolated settlement of Netzarim. Like Kfar Darom and Kfar Yam, it is one of the settlements where opposition to Sharon's plan is fiercest. Israel must also evict settlers from two settlements in the northern West Bank, Sa Nur and Homesh, which have attracted hundreds of outsiders opposed to the withdrawal.

The Israeli army had allotted up to a month to remove all the settlers. Now it appears that the operation could be complete by next week.

Yesterday's evacuations all followed a similar pattern. There were displays of compassion and resolve by Israeli forces mixed with settlers' screams, sobs and tears of defeat. Troops arrived at the gates of the settlements in an overwhelming show of force, flooding them with hundreds of soldiers and police who walked single file up and down the streets before going door to door.

In Kfar Darom, settlers greeted their evictors with heckles and insults, dismissing the troops as "criminals." Approximately 150 young protesters sang and chanted on the synagogue rooftop. Signs proclaimed "Jews don't expel other Jews." On the steps of the synagogue a man in prayer shawl prayed quietly to himself.

But the troops continued to arrive and began knocking on doors, negotiating patiently with families, urging them to leave.

At the home of Lillian Tal in Kfar Darom, police officers listened to the cries of her weeping family.

"You are supposed to protect," Tal, carrying a baby in her arms, shouted at a dozen police officers gathered at her front door. "What are you going to say next time you call your mothers, 'Mom, I uprooted a 2-year-old girl today. I took a pregnant woman from her home?'"

"My house, my kindergarten, my dolls are here," screamed Tal's daughter Hannah, 13.

One by one, the settlers left, carried out to buses or walking on their own, leaving the synagogue as the final holdout.

For Gaza's settlers and their supporters, Kfar Darom has always held significance. It was started more than 70 years ago as a religious farming community and abandoned during Israel's War of Independence in 1948, when invading Egyptian troops seized it. After Israeli troops captured the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Middle East war, Kfar Darom was re-established as a settlement.

Signs throughout the settlement proclaimed: "Kfar Darom will not fall again."

But in the end it did. Late yesterday afternoon, after negotiations with the protesters failed, police moved in to force them out, climbing up ladders and getting doused with paint and other debris as they cut through barbed wire protecting the synagogue rooftop. Other police were hoisted in a converted shipping container to the roof, where they subdued the young men before lowering them in the container to the ground.

Police arrested 160 of the young protesters.

Israeli forces also evicted protesters from a synagogue in Neve Dekalim, the Gaza Strip's largest settlement. Hundreds of young men had barricaded themselves inside before police moved in and dragged them away by their hands and feet to waiting buses.

Israeli forces feared the worst in Kfar Yam and nearby Shirat Hayam, two adjoining seaside settlements located near the remains of an old Egyptian military seaside resort.

Kfar Yam residents Arieh and Datya Yitzhaki, who have lived in a white stucco two-story home overlooking the sea for 21 years, have been among the most vocal opponents of the withdrawal plan. The couple have actively sought media attention, appealing to Jews around the world to flood their settlement with so many people authorities would not be able to remove them.

They helped build a tent city and refurbished abandoned homes on the beach, where hundreds of mainly young religious protesters camped out for weeks, vowing never to leave.

When Israeli forces arrived at about noon yesterday, some protesters stood on the rooftops playing guitar, banging a tambourine and singing. Three protesters waving orange ribbons - the color that became a symbol of resistance to the withdrawal - floated on a raft several hundred yards out at sea.

Another resident walked along the perimeter of his property, tossing sewage from his cesspool at columns of soldiers and police.

"It will be stinking for you here," he warned.

Police set to work clearing out protesters and residents, knocking in doors and pulling out screaming young men and women by their arms and legs. One writhing man was so disruptive that eight police officers were needed to drag him to a bus.

About 100 yards away from Kfar Yam in the Palestinian village of Al Mawasi, Marwan Minah and his family watched these events unfold, pleased by what they saw.

As one of the 1.3 million Palestinians who live alongside 8,500 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip, Minah is looking forward to the day this land will be handed over to his people.

"It's for the good of the whole world," he said.

Still, Minah's brother, Victor, a 40-year-old farmer, said he felt for his neighbors, even if relations between them have always been tense.

"You move him to a place and then kick him out. It's not nice. He's like a soccer ball," he said. "Yes, I have sympathy for them. But they should have found a place to live where they would not need to be uprooted in the first place."

That's what Arieh Yitzhaki had thought he found when he moved to Kfar Yam. Yesterday, Israeli authorities feared he might start shooting. He was seen patrolling the roof of his home with an M-16 assault rifle slung over his shoulder, threatening to battle Israeli forces.

Joining him on the roof were several dozen neighbors and supporters plus a number of small children.

After several hours of negotiations, Yitzhaki agreed to surrender his weapons, dropping them off the roof to a soldier.

What followed next resembled more of a theater performance than a military operation. An army bulldozer rumbled in and removed a concrete barrier protecting the family's yard and more than 100 soldiers and police, many in riot gear, poured into the yard, where they where showered with nothing more harmful than eggs and flour.

Police broke open the door, ran upstairs and began pulling the protesters out, many asking to be carried. As they were carried out the front door, most squirmed and shouted in front of television cameras and photographers.

"You'll remember this for the rest of your life," one woman being dragged out screamed at the soldiers.

Finally, Arieh Yitzhaki, holding his young daughter in his arms, walked down the stairs and out his front door.

"There will be more battles I promise you. I will continue fighting. Sharon will be history's garbage in a few months," he said before striding out of his yard and onto a bus. "I could have caused a blood bath. This did not happen. We shall win the next campaign."

As Yitzhaki's wife, Datya, emerged from the house, a reporter asked her how many protesters had joined her campaign to resist.

"Not enough," she said bitterly, before looking over her home one last time and walking away.

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