Last Gaza settlement cleared, West Bank towns prepare to resist

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Israeli soldiers are clearing the last of the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip, 38 years after Israel took possession of it. A total of 8,500 people have been evacuated, and many existing houses have been bulldozed.

Netzarim is one of the oldest settlements in the coastal strip, and has frequently been the target of Palestinian militant attacks. The village has been targeted particularly often as it divides the strip, and is also the most isolated Israeli settlement in Gaza.

600 residents are expected to leave peacefully after negotiating with police. They will depart in a fleet of armored buses and head to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest shrine in Judaism. Settlers will receive the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of US dollars in compensation.

Three young people were arrested on Sunday after police found them apparently preparing to resist violently, armed with metal spikes and barbed wire. Residents were still working on their buildings until large numbers of troops entered the settlement and began going house-to-house. Although there were tearful scenes, there were none of the protests of earlier in the week.

One resident said the evacuation showed the Arabs that the Jews were "weak and would run away", and others have said it rewards the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. However, overall, most Israelis support the withdrawals, with many blaming radical Judaism, including such settlements, for inciting conflict with Palestinians. Others merely consider isolated settlements an unnecessary defense burden on the Israeli military.

Four small militant West Bank settlements will also be cleared, with 5,500 troops heading there to begin the clearances on Tuesday. The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced at the same time that existing large West Bank settlements will be expanded. More than 230,000 Israelis live there, while 3.8 million Palestinians live in the Gaza strip and West Bank.

Sharon has said that he hopes the pull-out from the Gaza strip will help in negotiations for the retention of large West Bank blocs, even though the US opposes continued construction there. Israel feels that it has a much stronger Biblical claim to the West Bank than it did to the Gaza strip and the Palestinians feel they have the stronger claim to the land. Further small, isolated West Bank settlements may be cleared in the future.

It is said that 2,000 Israeli right-wing extremists are preparing to resist the evacuation in two of the four small West Bank settlements that are to be cleared. Hundreds of extremist youths have headed to the settlements from other nearby towns.

Settlers slashed the tires of Army vehicles over the weekend and set fire to an Army tractor with the driver inside. The Israeli Public Security Minister has said there will be no tolerance for those who oppose the troops. Most weapons have already been collected.

The US-backed "peace road map" calls on the Palestinians to disarm, which may result in more of the West Bank being cleared. However, the road map also calls on Israel to halt its expansion in the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hopes the Israeli pull-outs will signal to Muslim militants that peaceful negotiations can work.

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