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Thousands of Gaza Settlers Defy Evacuation Deadline

Thousands of Gaza Settlers Defy Evacuation Deadline

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NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (AP) -- As midnight Tuesday passed, young men and women in army uniforms were still knocking on doors in Gaza's biggest Jewish settlement, one last effort to persuade people to go on their own or be forced to leave.

Outside, a settler leader circulated through the streets with a bullhorn, urging the holdouts to get some sleep, conserve their energy for a dawn showdown with Israeli forces. Youngsters curled up on the lawn of the synagogue, with backpacks for pillows.

These were among the thousands of settlers who defied the deadline to leave the Gaza Strip.

While a few of Gaza's 21 Jewish communities had emptied out Tuesday, settlers and supporters in Neve Dekalim -- the heart of resistance -- threw bottles, eggs and stones at Israeli troops during the day and danced around the Torah in celebration at night.

Wednesday, they expect, will be Judgment Day in their long battle against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's historic plan to withdraw from Gaza and unilaterally hand the land to the Palestinians, ending 38 years of Israeli occupation.

Setting the stage for the pullout, some 2,000 Israeli troops poured into Neve Dekalim on Tuesday, marching in formation through the gate. Commanders carried maps and troops took up positions near the industrial zone, linking arms to form a cordon.

At times, settlers and soldiers going door-to-door were reduced to tears as they argued over the wisdom of Israel's abandoning Gaza, the focus of deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.

One woman was overheard telling a soldier how her mother was forced to pack her bags and flee Nazi Germany. "Just remember that you are the evil one who is throwing me out of my house," the woman said, rebuffing the soldier's offer of help.

Moments before midnight, scores of settlers were in synagogues in several Gaza communities, dancing around sacred Torah scrolls, waving flags and singing nationalist songs.

Israeli officials said about half of the Gaza's 1,600 settlement families had left voluntarily. At least three settlements were abandoned, and several more were nearly deserted. The army said it would assist anyone who wanted to leave voluntarily, even after the deadline.

Earlier in Neve Dekalim, the army burst through the main gate to clear the way for about 120 moving trucks. Within hours, a crowd blocked the trucks from entering, and scuffles erupted when security forces tried to push the crowd back.

Protesters pelted soldiers with bottles, eggs and stones, and set fire to garbage bins and tires. Smoke blackened the air. Police said four officers were injured.

Settlers in several farming communities burned their greenhouses and homes rather than leave them behind. One man punched holes in the walls of his house with a sledgehammer.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he expected the evacuation to take two about weeks. "I look with hope to the future, that the price we are paying ... will in the end bring about a positive change in Israel's situation," he said.

Israeli authorities said once Gaza is cleared of civilians it will take several more weeks before Israel finishes dismantling its military installations and relinquishes the coastal strip.

The fiercest resistance came from some 5,000 Jewish nationalists who slipped into Gaza over the past few weeks to reinforce the anti-withdrawal camp. Police handcuffed and detained several withdrawal opponents at Neve Dekalim on Tuesday, seeming to target the infiltrators.

Sharon has said giving up any territory and taking down settlements is very painful, and this week's confrontations could bolster his argument that Israel is making a huge concession that deserves international recognition.

By nightfall, three settlements -- Dugit, Peat Sadeh and Rafiah Yam -- were abandoned, and most residents had left three others. Several others were thinning out.

Hundreds of die-hard opponents continued trying to reach Gaza, trampling over Israeli cropland near the border to circumvent army roadblocks. Police set up more roadblocks late Tuesday to stop them. About 1,000 more protesters camped outside Sharon's Jerusalem residence.

The military commander of the Gaza sector, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said the army had been working with the Palestinian Authority on the evacuation and the "cooperation is very good." At Israel's request, Palestinian police dispersed several marches that were threatening to move toward Israeli positions, he said.

The level of Palestinian attacks had fallen sharply, he said, with only three incidents recorded since the evacuation began Monday. No one was hurt.

Palestinians held noisy demonstrations in Gaza City to celebrate the Israeli pullout. Young men cruised the city in open cars, some firing rifles into the air and brandishing rocket launchers.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told his Cabinet he was forming eight teams to coordinate the takeover of settlement land, including representatives of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.

The Gaza withdrawal is a landmark moment in the Mideast conflict. Although Israel has relinquished other land captured in 1967 to Egypt, in exchange for a peace treaty, this is the first Israeli withdrawal from territory claimed by the Palestinians for their own state.

Sharon's critics say he's giving away Gaza and getting nothing in return. Some say Gaza is part of the Jews' biblical heritage, and Sharon has no right to abandon it.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent Sharon a message of support. "I greatly admire the courage with which you have developed and implemented this policy," he wrote.

On the last day in Gaza for most of them, settlers bade tearful farewells to the farms and gardens they fashioned from sand and scrub. Religious settlers called it a "funeral." Some settlers, especially those threatening to resist eviction, maintained a normal routine until the end.

Thousands at Neve Dekalim inaugurated a mikvah, or ritual bath, with joyous songs of prayer and dancing with the Torah, the hand-scripted five books of Moses.

Stewart Tucker, a former Cleveland biology teacher who helped found the first Gaza settlement, Netzer Hazani, in 1975, harvested celery. "I don't know if we will get paid for it but at least we are picking," he said.

Day One of the evacuation saw little trouble. Troops refrained from forcing their way into settlements with eviction notices, warning settlers that anyone left in Gaza after midnight Tuesday would be evicted and could lose part of their government-promised compensation often amounting to several hundred thousand dollars.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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