Israeli forces storm synagogues to evict resisters to Gaza pullout
KFAR DAROM, Gaza Strip – Israeli riot police with helmets and shields broke open the door of a synagogue in this hard-line settlement and fired water cannons at barricaded protesters, who responded by hurling debris and what police said was acid at the troops.In the most violent confrontation since the forced removals began this week, several Israeli police and soldiers, in obvious discomfort, stripped off their clothes after being doused. Their comrades poured water over their heads and torsos to wash them off.As forces cut through the barbed wire to reach the synagogue’s roof, protesters threw sand and blue-green liquid and sprayed them with foam. Some used sticks to try to push away the ladders used by security forces to reach the roof.Others reached the roof via shipping containers hoisted by a crane.A sign hanging from the roof said, “We won’t forget. We won’t forgive.”Two officers slipped off a ladder to a ledge just below the roof because of oil thrown from above. Many policemen were covered in what appeared to be white paint. One, covered in a blanket, was carried away on a stretcher.Eventually, protesters were pushed into the container, which had wire-mesh doors, and then carried into waiting buses.The images were reminiscent of the removal of protesters from the Israeli settlement of Yamit in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 1982. Israel TV ran side-by-side shots of the evacuations of Kfar Darom and Yamit.President Bush was “getting frequent and regular updates from his staff on the developments” while vacationing at his Texas ranch, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Thursday.”The president continues to support Prime Minister Sharon and what he has called a very bold initiative,” she said. “It’s very courageous. We understand the deep sentiments that are felt and the difficulty one feels when leaving … their home.”Thursday’s confrontation was one of two at Gaza synagogues used as the last bastion by settlers opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, which Israel has occupied for 38 years. No deaths have been reported in the Gaza Strip pullout, but a Jewish settler, apparently despondent over the withdrawal, opened fire Wednesday at Palestinian workers in the West Bank, killing four.Also, Palestinians opened fire on Israeli troops on the road linking Israel to Gaza’s Jewish settlements, and a soldier was slightly wounded, the army said.At a synagogue in Neve Dekalim, the largest Israeli settlement in Gaza, the crowd chanted “Jews don’t expel Jews!” as police charged into the prayer hall. Protesters booed, whistled and threw water on troops.In the front rows, young men lay on the ground, linking arms, while those behind them tried to push away soldiers trying to get hold of arms and legs. Some of the protesters had their arms wrapped in leather tefilin prayer boxes and rocked fervently as they recited prayers. Rabbis in the crowd wore orange vests identifying them as clergy.Protesters chanted “Blasphemy! Blasphemy!” as soldiers dragged some of the young men away by their feet, then carried them feet first down a ramp onto a bus. One man was taken away on a stretcher, with an intravenous drip. Another was draped in an Israeli flag.The people inside the synagogues – mostly extremist youths from the West Bank and Israel – have provided some of the fiercest resistance to the pullout.It was no coincidence that they chose synagogues to make their last stand. Many of the settlers and their supporters are devout Jews who believe the West Bank and Gaza were promised to the Jews by God. They say their eviction is sacrilege.Elsewhere, security forces dragged screaming residents out of homes, and settlers burned houses, fields and tires in protest.Security officials said they expected to clear out all 21 Gaza settlements by Tuesday, more than two weeks ahead of schedule. By late Thursday, 17 settlements were empty, police said.Neve Dekalim was completely cleared out by Thursday night, hours after soldiers burst into the synagogue and carried out about 1,500 protesters taking refuge there.As the troops approached the synagogue, a bearded settler wearing a skullcap spat on an Israeli flag and ripped it into pieces. The man wore an orange Star of David on his shirt – reminiscent of the star the Nazis made Jews wear during World War II. Some soldiers involved in the operation burst into tears.In the farming settlement of Netzer Hazani, protesters set fires that sent a huge plume of black smoke into the air. Youths in Shirat Hayam, a hard-line beachfront outpost, burned tires and garbage.In nearby Kfar Yam, a settler armed with an M-16 rifle threatened to shoot troops if they attempt to evacuate him. He later surrendered.The army declared a curfew in Al-Mawasi, a Palestinian town adjacent to Shirat Hayam and Kfar Yam, to protect settlers and soldiers during the pullout.On Wednesday, a Jewish extremist in the West Bank killed four Palestinians in an apparent attempt to disrupt the Gaza pullout. Sharon called the shootings an act of “Jewish terror.”In Kfar Darom, soldiers formed cordons around Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who oversaw the operation, to shield him from shouting settlers.Thousands of soldiers entered the settlement at dawn and quickly encircled the 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.Troops also burst into a nursery school crowded with protesters. People sang and danced as the troops entered, and about two dozen young children played with toys. Troops quickly cleared out the building.Moti Cohen, who came from Jerusalem to be with the settlers, said protesters at the synagogue 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 throughout the day, driving several soldiers to tears.”You’re right! Cry like we are crying!” a settler, still in his white prayer shawl, shouted while being loaded onto a bus. By midday, 200 people had been removed, the army said.Noga Cohen, whose three children were 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 that read: “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.”Just a few yards outside Kfar Darom, dozens of Palestinians stood on rooftops to watch 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,” farmer Mohammed Bashir 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. Israel has occupied Gaza for 38 years.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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