Israeli troops battle settlers at Gaza synagogue

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip (Reuters) — Israeli troops using cranes and water cannon battled protesters on the rooftop of a Gaza settlement synagogue on Thursday as they assaulted the last bastions of resistance to evacuation of the occupied Strip.

In the most violent, frenzied scenes since the start of forced evictions from Gaza, unarmed police poured from a cage hoisted on top of a synagogue in Kfar Darom and fought settlers and their supporters before dragging them away.

Shouting “Jews don’t expel Jews,” protesters hurled stones, concrete chunks and paint-filled light bulbs at troops climbing up ladders to cut through coils of razor wire lining the roof. Several police were hurt by acid thrown at them, police said.

The melee was reminiscent of Israel’s chaotic evacuation of the Yamit settlement in Sinai in 1982 and followed a standoff with hundreds of ultranationalist youths barricaded inside the synagogue and defying orders to leave.

That came just an-hour- and-a-half after security forces swept into another synagogue in Gaza’s largest settlement, Neve Dekalim, to dislodge more than 1,000 young radicals.

The raids could break the back of resistance to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evict 8,500 settlers and their supporters from the territory occupied since 1967, home to 1.4 million Palestinians.

Evacuation of 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 enclaves in the West Bank under Sharon’s move to “disengage” from conflict with the Palestinians was progressing much faster than expected.

Palestinians have mostly welcomed the pullout, the first uprooting of enclaves on land they want for a state.

In the Neve Dekalim synagogue, protesters locked arms and legs lying on the ground, and teams of four soldiers had to pry them loose one by one before carrying them to waiting buses.

One teenager flailed wildly and shouted: “May this be a stain on your hearts forever!” An exhausted soldier, drenched in sweat, was pulled out on a stretcher sobbing: “I can’t go on.”

Troops in riot gear broke later into the Kfar Darom synagogue carried out hundreds of youths holed up inside.

Police fired water cannon at dozens of jeering, flag-waving protesters on the rooftop before launching their assault.

80 per cent out

Officials said 80 per cent of Gaza’s Jews had left or been evicted. More than 50,000 police and soldiers were deployed in Israel’s largest military operation other than in wartime.

As negotiators tried in vain to get protesters to leave the Kfar Darom synagogue, troops knocked on doors of houses and ordered people out. Some were dragged out, yelling and sobbing.

“We won’t be moved from the Land of Israel,” shrieked a bearded man in a prayer shawl who tied himself to a staircase and had to be cut down and carried away by soldiers. Rightist Jews believe Gaza is part of Israel’s biblical birthright.

Soldiers in Kfar Darom found themselves bursting in on a birthday party for a baby girl in a pink dress when they came to evacuate the family.

Troops also dragged away a soldier who refused to take part in the operation — the first such mutiny since the start of forced evictions from Gaza settlements on Wednesday.

A red-roofed villa was set ablaze in Neve Dekalim. An armed man on a seaside rooftop vowed to shoot if anyone tried to evict him — only to relent after negotiating with police.

Another tense situation ended without serious violence as forces entered the beachfront stronghold of Shirat Hayam. Bulldozers cleared away burning tyres and rubbish and troops pulled out settlers and protesters, some kicking and shouting.

Out by Tuesday

Israeli officials said the Gaza withdrawal would be completed by Tuesday, taking less than half as long as the most optimistic earlier predictions.

Palestinian anger was stoked on Wednesday when a Jewish settler shot dead three Palestinian labourers in a West Bank settlement in a bid to sabotage the withdrawal. The man, jailed on murder charges, told reporters he had no regrets.

Palestinian fighters fired two mortars at the Gadid settlement on Wednesday and a makeshift rocket near Neve Dekalim before dawn on Thursday following vows of revenge over the shooting, but caused no casualties or damage.

Ordinary Palestinians have watched the settlement evacuation with a mixture of glee and scepticism. They fear Sharon is trading Gaza for a tighter grip on the West Bank, where 240,000 Jews live surrounded by 2.4 million Palestinians.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a New York Times interview the withdrawal was a “dramatic moment” in the Middle East, and urged Israel and the Palestinians to follow up with more steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

Troops had emptied six Gaza settlements by Thursday, and Israel Radio said seven more enclaves were to be evacuated on Thursday.

Polls show a majority of Israelis support the withdrawal. Israeli opponents call it a reward for Palestinian violence. The World Court calls the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this.

Political analysts say Sharon hopes to relieve international pressure for broader pullbacks from the West Bank.

Israel says the pullout will end its occupation of Gaza, but Palestinians say that can only happen once they gain full control of borders and airspace. Israel is reluctant to allow that for now, citing security reasons.

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