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Clashes erupt in Gaza Strip, 50 arrested
Updated: 2005-08-16 19:04

Israeli security forces clashed with hundreds of opponents of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, arresting dozens of people in the roughest confrontation between troops and settlers since the start of the operation.

Palestinian security forces secure the area near the security wall of the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2005 during a rally by the Hamas militant group on the outskirts of Khan Younis in the central Gaza Strip .The Hamas rally in southern Gaza occurred as some 2,000 people, most of them children and teens, marched through the center of the Palestinian town of Khan Younis to celebrate Israel's pullout from Gaza. [AP]

The confrontation came hours ahead of a midnight deadline for all Jewish settlers to leave the Gaza Strip voluntarily or face forcible removal. Officials said they were hopeful many settlers would leave the area before the deadline, but also issued a stern warning of tough action against anyone who resists.

"We will make every effort, the army and the police, to have law and order in this process and anyone who acts illegally will be treated according to the law," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told a news conference. He said he expected at least half of Gaza's 8,500 residents to be out by midnight.

The three-week operation to evacuate Gaza began Monday with the distribution of eviction notices. Israel plans to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank. It is the first time Israel has removed veteran settlements from either area, which are claimed by the Palestinians for a future, independent state.

On Tuesday, Palestinian militants marched through the streets of a town in southern Gaza flanking the settlements, and vowed the Israeli withdrawal would be the first step toward eliminating Israel.

By midday, three Gaza settlements and two West Bank communities were empty, while five other Gaza settlements rapidly thinning out. But residents and their supporters in several communities appeared to be digging in for a fight.

Jewish settlers have vowed to resist the pullout peacefully. But officials estimate some 5,000 Jewish extremists from outside Gaza, many of them fervently religious teenagers, have infiltrated the settlements in recent weeks.

After failing to enter Gaza's largest settlement, Neve Dekalim, on Monday, police moved in early Tuesday and dismantled the main entrance gate to clear the way for some 120 moving trucks to enter. Officers used an electric saw to cut through the gate, then dragged the metal barrier away and threw it on the side of a road.

Within hours, a large crowd of predominantly young people gathered near the gate and refused to let the trucks enter the settlement. When security forces tried to push back the crowd, scuffles erupted. Protesters wearing the orange color of pullout opponents pelted police with plastic water bottles while security forces put a water cannon on standby.

Police said they detained at least nine youths, and carried off several flailing settlers by grabbing them by their arms and legs. More than an hour later, traffic remained at a standstill.

"If the settlement is struggling to survive, then everybody should stay," said Libby Weinberger, a U.S.-born Israeli who came to Neve Dekalim from the Israeli town of Raanana.

As the standoff continued, a family of settlers tried to leave Neve Dekalim in a jeep carrying four mattresses on the roof and pulling a small trailer. A young girl inside was crying as the crowd prevented the vehicle from moving.

Avner Shimoni, a leader in the Gush Katif settlement bloc, said leaders supported the right of anyone to leave voluntarily.

Much of the opposition appeared to be coming from outsiders who have evaded army roadblocks and infiltrated Gaza in recent weeks. Police spokesman Avi Zelba said about 500 people illegally in Gaza were arrested overnight, and dozens were caught trying to enter from Israel.

Brig. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, the army commander in the settlement, said the standoff was a sign of what lies ahead. "There will be places where it will be easier and there are places where it will require many more forces," he told Israel TV.

In the isolated Gaza settlement of Morag, leaders screamed out codewords over a loudspeaker ordering residents to go into hiding preparations for the arrival of Israeli troops. About one-third of the settlement's 220 residents had left by early Tuesday, and many others were packing up. However, the army said an estimated 300 hardline outsiders remained holed up in the settlement.

Elsewhere in Gaza, residents of the Bedolah settlement torched three cars and vowed to burn down their houses ahead of the withdrawal.

In central Gaza, the hardline settlement of Netzarim showed no signs of preparing to leave. Residents spent the night in a communal celebration, singing and dancing and waving orange flags.

"The party was the focus of many energies that exploded out ... Here it explodes with happiness," said resident Eyal Vered.

In a televised speech Monday evening, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised Gaza's settlers as "pioneers," but insisted that it is time for Israel to leave the area after 38 years of occupation.

"We cannot hold Gaza for good," he said. "More that a million Palestinians live there, doubling their numbers every generation."

Sharon also urged Palestinian leaders to control extremists. "To an outstretched hand of peace, we will respond with an olive branch, but fire will be met by fire more intense than ever," he said.

In the Palestinian town of Khan Younis, Palestinian children rushed toward the wall of a nearby Jewish settlement and placed a flag from the Hamas militant group on it prompting Israeli soldiers to fire warning shots.

Palestinian police struggled to keep the children away from the wall, an almost daily occurrence this last week. The Hamas rally in southern Gaza occurred as some 2,000 people, most of them children and teens, marched through town to celebrate Israel's pullout from Gaza.

Also marching were some 200 hundred masked gunmen carrying rocket launchers and machine guns.

"This is only the first step to liberating all of Palestine including Jerusalem east and west and every inch of Palestinian land from the sea to the river," said Hamas spokesman Younis al-Astal.

Hamas and other militant groups have been seeking to portray the Israeli withdrawal, which got underway this week, as a victory for violent resistance. Israel fears that perception could lead to further militant attacks after the pullout, undermining efforts to jump start Mideast peacemaking.

Palestinian leaders have vowed to maintain law and order after the Israeli pullout. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and other Palestinian leaders began a campaign to clean up Gaza's streets under the slogan, "Gaza Clean and Beautiful."

Qureia wore a T-shirt saying, "Today Gaza. Tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem."

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