Settlers, Israeli Army Clash in Lead Up to Gaza Strip Pullout

This a day after the region was declared a closed military zone due to clashes between its forces and ultra-radical Jews who are fighting the government’s plan to uproot settlers from occupied Palestinian territory.

Israel’s plan to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank is set to begin in August. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the goal is to “disengage” from conflict by withdrawing Israel’s soldiers and 8,000 settlers from Gaza, home to 1.3 million Palestinians. This would be the first time Israel has uprooted settlers with the goal of creating a Palestinian state.

U.S.-led mediators hope the pullout will revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but religious opponents say the government is betraying biblical claims to land captured in the 1967 War and capitulating to the Palestinian intifada that began in 2000.

Palestinians welcome the withdrawal, but fear Israel may use it to justify West Bank settlements where about 230,000 settlers live.

Over the past week, Israeli Army forces have dealt with ultranationalists who have poured oil and nails on roads, held protests during rush-hour to snarl traffic and attacked Palestinians and Army soldiers, according to Reuters.

In one widely televised incident, young Jewish men attacked a Palestinian teenager, throwing stones and knocking him unconscious.

On Thursday, commandos stormed a hotel in Gaza to eject 150 ultranationalists who had barricaded the building in protest.

The violence has turned Israeli public opinion away from pro-settler radicals according to a poll in the popular newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. Support for Prime Minister Sharon’s plan had risen from 53 percent to 62 percent while opposition had fallen from 38 percent to 31 percent following chaotic protests, Reuters reported.

“In a few days the settlers have succeeded in arousing feelings of disgust that they did not manage to arouse for decades,” said newspaper commentator Sima Kadmon.

While the area was reopened to traffic, soldiers are still stopping vehicles and looking for items that could help the settlers hunker down and fight removal — including heavy equipment, building materials and household goods.

“This order is meant to prevent radical elements from transferring various types of infrastructure which may create foundations for new tension,” an army statement said.

Under a plan approved by the Israeli cabinet, settlers have the chance to relocate to a new community along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, a few miles to the north of the Gaza Strip.

The boundaries have not been announced, but the area includes an unspoiled beach and rolling sand dunes that make up a nature reserve. The land is in addition to the compensation the settlers will receive for the evacuation, which is expected to average about $200,000 to $300,000 per family.

Although the majority of the 1,600 settler families in Gaza still oppose the pullout, increasing numbers are contacting the government agency working to relocate them, Israeli officials say. “I think the proposal, despite all the problems surrounding it, is all in all a reasonable decision,” Housing Minister Isaac Herzog told Israel radio.

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