Israel demolishes Gaza buildings in prelude to pullout

SHIRAT HAYAM, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli bulldozers knocked down a row of abandoned buildings next to this seaside settlement on Sunday, clashing with Jewish settlers in the first military operation aimed at heading off opposition to Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
In a foretaste of what could lie ahead, troops scuffled with the young settlers, who taunted the soldiers, climbed on bulldozers and lay in front of one of the mammoth vehicles to prevent it from carrying out the demolitions.

One Israeli soldier was punished for siding with the settlers.

Under the withdrawal, set to begin in mid-August, Israel plans to uproot all 8,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza, as well as about 500 residents of four small settlements in the West Bank. Settlers strongly oppose the plan, and Israeli officials fear that extremists among the pullout opponents could turn violent.

The buildings demolished Sunday were former Egyptian resort cottages that were abandoned after Israel captured Gaza 38 years ago.

Pullout opponents had planned on moving into the structures to reinforce resistance during the withdrawal. The cottages are near a derelict beachfront hotel in Gaza where hundreds of opponents already have barricaded themselves.

As the troops arrived to carry out the demolitions, they were confronted by several dozen young activists, most of them Orthodox Jews. “Jews don’t expel Jews,” the activists shouted at the soldiers. Several settlers climbed onto a bulldozer, and a small group holed up under one vehicle to block its path.

The crowd scuffled with soldiers who dragged several protesters away. The army said 10 Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers and police officers were injured, none seriously.

The army said 11 structures were demolished, and the beach was littered with concrete rubble after the operation.

The army said the area would remain a closed military zone until the rubble is removed. It didn’t have a timetable for the cleanup.

“The Israeli military strongly rejects violent behaviour against its soldiers by extremist elements,” the army said in a statement.

During the operation, a soldier began shouting at his comrades and expressing opposition to the mission. The army said the soldier’s weapon was taken away, and he was escorted away.

“This is not justice,” the soldier, Avi Bieber, said to reporters as he was taken away. The army issued a statement saying the soldier refused a disciplinary hearing, demanding a court martial, and an officer would decide between the two, Hannah Apickar, a resident of Shirat Hayam, said Sunday’s scuffle was a sign of things to come.

“We don’t want a civil war, we’re against a civil war,” she told Channel 2 TV. “We haven’t been violent, but you have to understand that when we see something like this here, we shall oppose it. We shall not let the bulldozers reach our area.” The government has offered compensation and new homes to uprooted settlers. On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet sweetened the offer by approving additional concessions, including deeply discounted land in a prime coastal area not far from Gaza.

The army is preparing for the possibility of soldiers disobeying orders, civil disobedience and even armed resistance by settlers during the withdrawal. Israel also has said it will be ready for possible attacks on settlers or soldiers by Palestinian fighters.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said his security forces will ensure quiet from the Palestinian side during the pullout.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed the withdrawal more than a year ago as a step to improve Israeli security and beef up control over large blocs of settlements in the West Bank, where the vast majority of Israeli settlers live. The Palestinians claim all of Gaza and the West Bank for a future independent state.

Sharon has continued expanding West Bank settlements, drawing sharp criticism from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her recent trip to the region, Israeli officials said Sunday.

The officials, who were present at a meeting where Rice criticised the construction, said she was displeased by construction she saw when travelling from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian leaders. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their positions.

Friction between the US and Israel has surfaced over different readings of President George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter that a final peace settlement would have to take Israel’s main settlement blocs into account.

Israel has interpreted the document as a green light to build in its largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim and other established West Bank communities, and to expropriate Palestinian land in annexed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim for their capital.

The US maintains that any new construction violates the US-backed “road map” peace plan, which Washington hopes to revive after the Gaza pullout.

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