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Amid Protests and Tears, Israel Begins Gaza Pullout

The eviction notices marked the initial move in a three week process that will see Israel close all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of the 120 in the West Bank.

At Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza and home to more than 2,600 religious conservatives, hundreds of protesters erected makeshift barricades and used their bodies to try and block police from entering. There were reports of scuffles between some of the settlers and police and of protesters hurling paint-filled balloons and setting fire to tires and other barricades.

Israeli Army officials were cautious as to how they would approach the situation at Neve Dekalim in particular.

“We will see how we will crack this particular nut,” Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, Israel’s commander over the Gaza region, told the Associated Press.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed the minor clashes on some 5,000 ultra-nationalists whom Israeli Army sources say have likely infiltrated the settlements.

“We will not tolerate violence and incitement from those who would force their opinions upon us,” Sharon was quoted as telling his cabinet on Monday.

The pullout is a calculated gamble by the conservative government of Sharon who undertook the plan after peace talks with the Palestinian Authority failed to make progress. His government has argued that it can no longer afford the settlements, and the massive security needed to defend them.

“There is no sense whatsoever to remain here,” Shimon Peres, the deputy prime minister, told reporters on Sunday, according to the New York Times. “The settlements must be evacuated.”

Throughout the debate over the withdrawal plan, a solid majority of Israelis have backed the idea, according to public opinion polls published during the period.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called the beginning of the pullout a “historic moment”, saying it was the first step toward granting his people freedom.

“If they want peace, they must allow Palestinians to achieve their rights,” Abbas told the BBC.

Meanwhile in Gaza, Reuters reported the militant group Hamas claimed the pullout as vindication of its campaign of suicide bombings and other violence.

“The blood of martyrs has led to liberation,” one Hamas banner read in Gaza City.

Although the process has been largely peaceful, marked only by emotional confrontations and sporadic scuffling with police, tensions could boil over in the coming days. Monday’s step of delivering the eviction notices give the settlers 48 hours to leave the region. If settlers continue to stay, Israeli police and soldiers will begin the forceful removal of those who remain.

In their early interaction with the settlers, police and military officials appeared to plead with opponents to maintain peace and order.

“It’s a painful and difficult day, but it’s a historic day,” Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, told Army Radio.

Israeli authorities estimate about half of the nearly 9,000 settlers set to be forced out have already left, taking the government up on its offer of financial assistance of $150,000 to $400,000 per family and help finding a new home. But some 4,500 or so remain, bolstered by the other nationalists who have traveled to help them resist the government’s plan.

Israel has assembled a force of 55,000 soldiers to empty 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank, outnumbering resisting settlers by a four to one ratio and sending an unequivocal message that those who refuse to cooperate will be removed against their will. In the end, 8,500 settlers will leave their homes in Gaza, where they have lived isolated from the strip’s 1.4 million Palestinians. Another 500 settlers will have to vacate the northern West Bank.

Though grocery stores are empty, restaurants are closed and families are packing and leaving, about 5,000 Jewish opponents of the pullout have slipped passed army checkpoints. The remaining settlers have welcomed the activists, sheltering them in their attics and helping them assemble tent camps. The activists intend to stay in the settlements until the army drives them out.

In response, on Thursday the government prohibited all visitors from entering Gaza.

“After the 17th, the only thing left will be for them to fight with the army,” Brig. Gen. Dan Harel told the Associated Press.

Nonetheless, settler leaders said they expect several thousand more activists to arrive, even if they have to sneak in illegally.

But many settlers had already departed by the time soldiers arrived on Monday. Of the 1,700 affected settler families, 1,018 had applied for government compensation for their lost property as of Aug. 8. The government has threatened to deny each family one third of their compensation package if they remain in the settlements to protest after the deadline.

Soldiers have marked each abandoned house with a small “x,” though many departed residents identified their evacuations themselves by leaving behind graffiti or Israeli flags as symbols of protest.

Despite polls showing that around 60 percent of Israelis support withdrawing from Gaza, opposition has been fierce of late. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned from the Cabinet Aug. 7, citing his fear that “the disengagement will eventually aggravate terrorism instead of reducing it.”

On Thursday, 150,000 rightists held a protest rally in Tel Aviv. They claim that the pullout undermines Jewish claims to a biblical birthright, one of the primary reasons why many Orthodox Jews flocked to fill the “promised land” with settlements when Israel acquired Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war.

Beyond clashing with activists and settlers, the Israeli Army may have a more violent enemy to worry about when the deadline expires on Wednesday. The militant Palestinian group Hamas invited TV cameramen to film 1,000 of its members training in anticipation of the pullout.

The Palestinian leadership has called on Hamas to allow Israel to evacuate the settlements without incident, and even pledged to deploy its own force of 7,500 officers to police the rival faction.

In an effort to ensure that the transition goes smoothly, the Palestinian Authority reached out to Hamas. The militant group agreed to cooperate, but rejected Abbas’ request that it not engage in militant victory celebrations.

Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said his group and the Palestinian Authority had “agreed on forming a committee to oversee the withdrawal and ensure that no one will benefit from the public properties, except the Palestinian people,” the Associated Press reported. But he added that, “the way we celebrate is our own business.”

Though Palestinian celebrations have begun, move-in day is at least a month away. The Israeli Defense Ministry said Friday that it hopes to complete the withdrawal by Sept. 4. Once the settlers leave, the army will raze all existing homes.

A myriad political matters pertaining to the 26-mile-long strip still need to be resolved as well. Though Israeli and Palestinian experts both mostly acknowledge that Gaza’s isolation must end for it to revive economically, no arrangements have been agreed upon for an airport, seaport, border crossings and Arab travel to the West Bank, which lies a mere 24 miles away but across Israeli land.

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