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Israeli soldiers surround Gaza synagogue
Updated: 2005-08-18 18:57

KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip - Hundreds of Gaza pullout opponents barricaded themselves behind rolls of barbed wire in the synagogue of this hardline Jewish settlement Thursday, as security forces dragged screaming residents out of nearby homes and a religious school, the Associated Press reported.

Israel army and police surround the synagogue were hard-liners have barricaded themselves in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the southern Gaza Strip Thursday Aug. 18, 2005. Thousands of troops marched into Kfar Darom at dawn Thursday to remove settlers. By mid-morning, the forces began carrying away protesters in shacks and tents at the edges of the settlement. The fiercest resistance is expected over Kfar Darom's synagogue where hundreds have barricaded themselves behind rolls of barbed wire. The signs read in Hebrew 'Kfar Darom will not fall again.'; 'For the Lord will not abandon His people or abandon His land.'[AP]

Thousands of soldiers had entered the settlement at dawn, beginning the second day of forcible removal of Gaza's settlers, and quickly encircled the heavily fortified synagogue and two nearby buildings. After failed attempts to negotiate a peaceful surrender, troops began moving into homes.

"Why did you become a soldier, to be in this crazy situation?" screamed a young mother, cradling a baby, as soldiers entered her home.

In another house, a husband and wife lay on the floor, shrieking and clutching their small children. A soldier participating in the evacuation of a religious school suddenly disobeyed orders and was quickly carried away by troops.

Elsewhere, troops burst in on a family celebrating a birthday party for a child and entered a nursery school crowded with protesters. People were singing and dancing as the troops entered, and about two dozen young children were playing with toys.

In the small settlement of Netzer Hazani, black plumes of smoke rose as settlers set fire to barricades at the gate of their settlement to keep soldiers from evacuating them. Hundreds of troops poured into Netzer Hazani anyway.

A fire truck was brought in to put out the massive flames rising from the barricades of overturned garbage containers and tires doused in gasoline. Settlers pelted the vehicle with paint and eggs.

Residents shouted at the soldiers, who used megaphones to order the settlers back into their homes. Most complied, though several emerged later to try to block an army bulldozer from clearing a path for troops.

A settler on a motorbike rode through the flames carrying orange ribbons ! the color of opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's pullout from Gaza. One woman said, "We want to make the soldiers cry so they never do such a terrible thing."

Several of the soldiers did shed tears, and settlers consoled them with hugs.

On Wednesday, the first day of forced evacuation, there had been relatively little violence. In all, 11 of 21 Gaza settlements stood empty Thursday.

In Kfar Darom, the fiercest resistance was expected at the synagogue, where hundreds of protesters on the roof barricaded themselves behind rows of barbed wire.

Moti Cohen, who had come from Jerusalem to be with the settlers, said protesters have hoarded sand bags and cans of foam spray for the confrontation. A large banner draped over the facade read: "For the Lord will not abandon His people or abandon His land."

Residents jeered the forces, driving several soldiers to tears. "You're right. Cry like we are crying," shouted one settler who was loaded onto a bus, still wearing his white prayer shawl.

Soldiers put protective goggles over their eyes as they took up positions. A huge military bulldozer cleared cement barriers, normally used to protect the community from Palestinian fire. Lines of buses waited at the entrance of the settlement, prepared to take people away.

Noga Cohen, who had three children maimed in a Palestinian shooting attack on a bus, said Israel was surrendering to Palestinian militants. On the door of her house was a sign. "In the event you knock on the door, you are a direct partner in the most terrible crime in the history of the nation of Israel."

Kfar Darom has about 500 residents who have been joined by hundreds of outsiders ! many of them extremist teenagers from the West Bank ! to resist.

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the Gaza commander, said he wanted to wrap up the operation by the end of the day. "If there are understandings, that would be good. If there are not, we will move the people out anyway," he said.

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 Mohammed Abu Samra, a resident of the area.

Just a few yards 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 Mohammed Bashir, a Palestinian farmer.

The forced evacuations of Gaza's settlers began Wednesday after the expiration of a deadline for residents to leave. Israel says its 38-year occupation of Gaza, home to 1.3 million Palestinians, cannot be sustained.

While most troops focused on Kfar Darom 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 1,500 outside "reinforcements" ! most of them teenage activists from outside the settlement ! remained holed up in the synagogue.

In the Neve Dekalim synagogue, hundreds of men were praying or readying holy books. Some two dozen had ripped their shirts in a sign of mourning. One of them, Oren Ozeri, said he was praying for a miracle. "This is a war against God. They are desecrating a place holy to God."

Outside, hundreds of troops formed human chains ringing the building. Protesters formed chains of their own opposite the soldiers, in many cases pleading and arguing with them.

Troops also entered the small settlement of Gan Or, and were expected to clear out Shirat Hayam, a small hardline outpost, as well.

Protesters in Shirat Hayam erected a makeshift barrier of razor wire, tires and garbage bins at the entrance of the outpost. They lay down boards filled and potatoes filled with nails on the ground.

The scenes of sobbing settlers leaving their homes Wednesday was emotional. But the evictions went more smoothly and quickly than anyone anticipated.

Feared violence did not materialize in Gaza, although a Jewish settler in the West Bank, apparently despondent over the withdrawal, opened fire at Palestinian workers, killing four.

Hamas pledged revenge, but a spokesman for the Islamic militant group indicated the group would not attack exiting Israelis in Gaza since it wants the withdrawal to be completed as soon as possible.

After the West Bank shooting, three mortar shells and a homemade rocket fired from Palestinian territory exploded near emptied Gaza settlements. No one was hurt.

Wednesday's worst act of protest was the self-immolation of a 54-year-old woman from the West Bank at a police roadblock in southern Israel. She suffered life-threatening burns on 70 percent of her body, police and hospital officials said.

Sharon proposed his "disengagement plan" two years ago to ease Israel's security burden and help preserve Israel's Jewish character by placing Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians outside the country's boundaries.

The Palestinian Authority and the United States want the pullout to be the beginning of the "road map" peace process, meant to bring about an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Palestinian militants are portraying the pullout as a victory for their suicide bombings and rocket attacks, and some Israelis fear they will resume their violence once the withdrawal is complete.

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