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Protesters Turn Temples Into Theaters of Struggle

Times Staff Writers

Militant young holdouts fighting Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip made a furious last stand on the roof of a settlement synagogue Thursday, pelting riot police and soldiers with chunks of concrete and gallons of caustic fluid while troops fired back with water cannons.

The confrontation at Kfar Darom was the most violent since thousands of police officers and soldiers moved into the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza on Monday to carry out the withdrawal. More than 80 police officers and soldiers were injured and more than 100 protesters arrested. Eventually, all the holdouts were loaded, shouting and struggling, onto waiting buses.

In Kfar Darom and three other settlements, houses of prayer became the chief venues of struggle on the second and seemingly decisive day of forcible removal of settlers and their supporters. By nightfall, all but three settlements were empty or nearly so, including Neve Dekalim, the largest Gaza settlement and a main hub of opposition to the pullout.

Authorities said they believed that the clearing of Neve Dekalim would usher in the end of resistance in the remaining settlements. Those communities -- Atzmona, Katif and Netzarim -- were expected to be emptied early next week, Israeli news reports said, along with two small settlements in the northern West Bank.

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The evacuation, Israel’s largest noncombat military operation ever, was to be halted for the Jewish Sabbath, beginning at dusk today. Work probably will resume Sunday morning, after the holy day’s end Saturday night.

Israel captured Gaza in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and over the years nearly 9,000 Jewish settlers had come to live in the territory among more than 1.3 million Palestinians. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that relinquishing Gaza and turning it over to the Palestinians would be in Israel’s best interest, relieving it of the burden of defending the settlements.

In polls, a majority of Israelis have backed the pullout. Despite the wrenching scenes it has produced, a survey commissioned by Israel Radio indicated that most people were satisfied with the army’s work in carrying out the evacuation.

But settlers, many of whom believe that God gave Gaza to the Jews, mounted months of furious protest. In recent weeks, they had been joined in Gaza by thousands of radical young supporters, most from West Bank settlements. By early Thursday, the remaining Gaza settlers were outnumbered by the outsiders as the resistance came to a head in Kfar Darom.

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In recent days, young protesters had outfitted the community’s bunker-like synagogue for a full-on siege, laying in provisions, scattering spikes on the road and lugging in concrete blocks. As the troops moved in Thursday, a veil of thick black smoke, shouted prayers and supplications, and a scorching wind lent an apocalyptic feel to the proceedings.

Youths gathered on the synagogue roof held up mirrors to try to blind the troops with reflected sunlight. Hundreds of demonstrators holed up in the building fought a battle with soldiers that lasted hours into the night.

Evacuating forces scaled ladders to reach the roof and tried repeatedly to use a hydraulic crane to place a metal shipping container full of troops on top of the building, finally succeeding after several attempts.

For many Israelis, the televised pictures of troops clambering up ladders were reminiscent of the last-ditch rooftop struggle at Yamit, the Jewish settlement in the Sinai desert that was evacuated in 1982 after Israel made peace with Egypt.

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In Neve Dekalim, police officers and soldiers formed a thick cordon around the main synagogue, where more than 1,000 people were holed up, and authorities told those inside to vacate the complex or face being removed by force.

To try to slow the advance of troops, teenage activists poured cooking oil on a synagogue access ramp. Protesters had been camping for weeks on the grounds of the synagogue, whose main plaza was piled high with backpacks and sleeping bags.

Worshipers -- males in one part of the complex, females in another -- prayed, sang and called out to God for help. In the end, the men and boys were carried out, many of them kicking and flailing, while women and girls were led away weeping by female police officers and soldiers and loaded onto buses.

The army had hoped that synagogues would not become the site of violent clashes. Most Israelis, even if not religiously observant, are appalled by any desecration of sacred Jewish sites and objects. The televised images of troops and settlers grappling and throwing punches in the shadow of Torah scrolls caused deep unease.

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“The fact that people feel a synagogue is their last refuge and haven is very acceptable -- just imagine how powerful a statement if all these people would have engaged in a silent prayer before the troops,” religious affairs analyst Aviezer Ravitsky said. “Instead they created a physically tense situation. There is an internal contradiction here.”

Some Israeli politicians, noting that many of those involved in the synagogue confrontations were teens or even younger, had harsh words for rabbis who encouraged them.

“These kids on the roof think this is true Zionism,” Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz said. “They were misled. It is not Zionism. It is hooliganism.”

Military and police officials, who in recent days have spoken of little but the need for restraint and sensitivity in dealing with the settlers, took a much harsher tack with the outside protesters, saying that those who had committed violent acts would be punished.

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“What we saw here was a breaking of all the boundaries that we worked so hard to maintain over the past few days,” said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the commander of the withdrawal. “We will deal with the full severity of the law with these people who desecrated the synagogue and ... went berserk and injured officers.”

Despite the violence, the overall evacuation was proceeding much more quickly than authorities had first predicted. In part that was because authorities, alarmed by a huge influx of outside protesters, had sent in a much larger force than originally planned to remove the settlers. And the evacuation forces tackled more communities simultaneously than had been envisioned.

In some communities, such as Netzer Hazani, residents chose to bid a dignified farewell to their synagogue. Although they greeted troops with a blazing barricade, the Netzer Hazani settlers eventually agreed to leave peacefully and held special prayers in the synagogue before departing.

But troops had to drag settlers and their supporters out of temples in the settlements of Gan Or and Shirat Hayam.

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In Shirat Hayam, a small beach community whose size was quadrupled by a tent camp of several hundred protesters, about 50 young men were carried from the synagogue by soldiers.

“We wanted to sing and pray to demonstrate our message that settling in every part of the land of Israel is important for our nation,” said Assif Tzobel, a 26-year-old from the West Bank.

In addition to clearing the synagogues, soldiers continued going methodically from house to house to remove settlers, using persuasion where possible and physical coercion when they deemed it necessary. As they had on the previous day, the troops endured volleys of taunts.

“Don’t do this, you’re ruining my life!” a sobbing young woman clutching a baby shrieked at soldiers who had come to evict her. “I want you to cry too. I want you to feel this pain.”

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“Where’s the enemy -- do you see the enemy?” a young boy on a rooftop shouted at other troops.

In some settler homes, highly orchestrated displays of happy family life unfolded as soldiers arrived. When troops pried the door off its hinges at one Kfar Darom home, after receiving no answer to knocks, they came upon a birthday party for a 1-year-old girl, complete with balloons and cake.

At the Kfar Darom nursery, some parents holed up with infants and toddlers. Soldiers had to cut through locked doors with circular saws to get to them.

“Very difficult images,” said one TV commentator.

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Settlers and their supporters have repeatedly called on troops to disobey orders and refuse to take part in the withdrawal. None did so Wednesday, but on Thursday, a reservist in the military police defected to the settlers’ side in Kfar Darom. Police officers hustled him away, but not before he faced the television cameras and began praying.

The steadfastness of the troops left the defeated anti-withdrawal protesters disillusioned and alienated.

“We used to worship the army, but now they are distant from us,” said Kinneret Tzabari, a 19-year-old who spent a month camped out in Neve Dekalim to try to halt the withdrawal. “You can’t find the words -- there is nothing to say to them.”

With most of the settlers gone, an animal-rescue group said Thursday that it planned to enter the settlements to round up stray dogs and cats left behind in the crush. The Society to Protect Animals planned to seek permission to go in as soon as all 21 settlements were declared secured by the army.

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*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Almost gone

All but three settlements in the Gaza Strip and two in the West Bank had been completely or mostly evacuated by midnight Thursday:

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--

West Bank settlements

Sanur: Awaiting evacuation

Homesh: Awaiting evacuation

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Isolated settlements

Kfar Darom: Synagogue cleared

Netzarim: Residents remain

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--

Gush Katif block

Atzmona: Residents remain

Gan Or: Synagogue cleared

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Katif: Residents remain

Neve Dekalim: Synagogue cleared

Shirat Hayam: Synagogue cleared

*Source: Israel Defense Forces

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Ellingwood reported from Neve Dekalim and King from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Shlomi Simhi in Neve Dekalim and special correspondent Vita Bekker in Shirat Hayam contributed to this report.


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