Protestors blockaded in a Gaza Strip synagogue on Thursday threw acid at police in the most violent confrontations since Israel began its pullout from the territory.
The incident in the isolated settlement of Kfar Darom came after troops climbed up ladders to the roof of the synagogue where radical Jews were holding out in defiance of orders to evacuate all settlements in the Gaza Strip.
But as the brilliant blue skies gave way to nightfall, it appeared that the security forces had gained the upper hand, with screaming protestors being hauled out one-by-one by their hands and feet to waiting coaches.
The scenes of Israeli soldiers locked in confrontation with settlers and their sympathisers were repeated elsewhere in Gaza.
“We have several policemen who have been wounded by acid and we will apply the full force of the law,” General Dan Harel, in charge of the pullout, told reporters.
Police officials said 24 of their force had been wounded.
But it appeared that Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian territory it has occupied for 38 years was now proceeding at a remorseless pace, with more than half the 21 settlements reportedly empty.
“For the first time in the last few years I’m standing here without any fear that Israelis will shoot at me because their battle today is against themselves”
Similar dramatic scenes were also played out at the synagogue in the main settlement of Neve Dekalim, as Israeli forces pushed forward with the first ever withdrawal from occupied Palestinian land
There, teenage and adult religious Jews were being carried out by their arms and legs, screaming abuse at the unarmed police who raided the synagogue after the estimated 2000 inside defied an ultimatum to leave voluntarily and end a two-day standoff.
Israeli troops also cleared the messianic beachside settlement of Shirat Hayam, believed to be the most radical of all, dragging settlers out of their homes and manhandling them onto buses.
In the Kfar Yam settlement, scores of Israeli soldiers raided a
house where an armed Jewish settler and around 30 people, including children, had barricaded themselves inside.
Shai Itzkovitz, a police spokesman, said troops planned to clear out at least seven more settlements by the end of the day – making the operation much faster than initially anticipated.
Some 70% of the estimated 8000 settlers have left, public radio reported, although their numbers were swelled by around 5000 infiltrators.
The forced evacuations of Gaza’s settlers began on Wednesday after the expiry of a deadline for residents to leave. Israel says its 38-year occupation of Gaza, home to 1.3 million Palestinians, cannot be sustained.
On Wednesday a Jewish extremist in the West Bank shot and killed four Palestinians in an apparent attempt to disrupt the Gaza pullout.
Aljazeera correspondents said in northern West Bank, two small settlements, Kadim and Ganim, east of Jenin had been evacuated. Two other small settlements still remained in tact.
Eleven of 21 settlements in Gaza
The army set up a special command centre in Kfar Darom, and the army chief, Leiutenant General Dan Halutz, personally oversaw the operation.
Soldiers formed several cordons around him to shield him from shouting settlers. Officials predicted they would clear out the settlement by the end of the day.
During the standoff, a group of Kfar Darom settlers walked to a group of nearby Palestinian houses, throwing stones and breaking some of the windows, said Muhammad Abu Samra, a resident of the area. Abu Samra said soldiers intervened and tried to stop the settlers.
Just a few metres outside Kfar Darom, dozens of Palestinians stood on the roofs of their houses watching the evacuation.
“For the first time in the last few years I’m standing here without any fear that Israelis will shoot at me because their battle today is against themselves,” said Muhammad Bashir, a Palestinian farmer.
While most troops focused on Kfar Darom on Thursday, they also returned to Neve Dekalim, the focus of evacuation operations on the first day.
Officials also hoped to complete the evacuation of Neve Dekalim, Gaza’s largest settlement.
Police said about 100 of 480 families remained in Neve Dekalim. About 1500 outside “reinforcements” – most of them teenage activists from outside the settlement – remained holed up in the synagogue.
Palestinians prepare to take back
In the Neve Dekalim synagogue, hundreds of men were praying or reading holy books. About two dozen had ripped their shirts in a sign of mourning.
Outside, hundreds of troops formed human chains around the building. Protesters formed chains of their own opposite the soldiers, in many cases pleading and arguing with them.
In the small settlement of Netzer Hazani, troops had to face settlers on either side of a burning barricade of rubbish skips and tires soaked in gasoline.
There was a pall of smoke over the settlement after settlers burned trees nearby. A firetruck and large bulldozer cleared out the area, and troops poured into the settlement.
Residents said they planned to resist removal, but not use violence. Resident Anita Tucker had laid out a breakfast spread and planned to welcome soldiers into her home and tell them she did not consider them her enemies.
Soldiers tried to negotiate a
Troops also entered the small settlement of Gan Or and Shirat Hayam, a small hardline outpost, as well. In Gan Or, soldiers were attempting to negotiate a peaceful departure with about a dozen remaining families.
At least one house was set on fire, and one family barricaded themselves in their home.
In Shirat Hayam, settlers burnt tires and garbage on the access road. Organisers told protesters over loudspeakers to assume their positions. They also lay down boards of potatoes filled with nails on the ground.