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Israel Begins Forced Removal of Jewish Settlers From Gaza as Deadline Expires

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Israeli troops began the forced evacuation of thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip Wednesday after a deadline for them to leave expired last night. We go to Gaza to speak with Chris McGreal, correspondent with the London Guardian, who reports from the settlement of Neve Dekalim. [includes rush transcript]

Israeli troops began the forced evacuation of thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip Wednesday after a deadline for them to leave expired last night.

Unarmed Israeli soldiers broke though burning barricades and marched door to door ordering people out of their homes in five settlements. The operation is the culmination of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from the Gaza strip which has been occupied by Israel for nearly four decades.

Troops and police grabbed settlers and pushed them into buses. Scuffles broke out with a large crowd, as protesters burned garbage, fought with police officers and threw eggs and water bottles at them. One woman set herself on fire during an anti-pullout protest in the Negev town of Netivot. She was seriously wounded. Settlers in some farming communities were seen burning their greenhouses and homes rather than leave them to the Palestinians. One man took a sledgehammer to the walls of his home. Police said Wednesday morning that in the last 24 hours they had arrested 498 people, of whom 451 were released.

Police said one woman was arrested for stabbing and lightly wounding a soldier. Soon after the incident, Sharon beseeched settlers not to attack soldiers saying “Don’t blame them. Don’t make it hard on them. Don’t hurt them, hurt me.”

Further confrontation looms as hundreds of Israeli troops escorted by bulldozers marched into the Neve Dekalim settlement, a focus of resistance where thousands have defied orders to leave. IDF officials are reportedly hammering out a deal with settlement leaders, whereby the settlers would leave by this afternoon.

Government eviction notices went into effect on Monday but settlers were given 48 hours to leave or be removed from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank. Many of Gaza’s 8,500 settlers packed up trucks ahead of the Wednesday deadline to quit Gaza. But the army estimated about half the settler population would remain in defiance.

Officials say 66 percent of settler families have accepted compensation deals. Those who refused to go could lose a third of the money, ranging from $150,000 to $400,000 dollars per family.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a senior aide to Sharon said that all or nearly all of the 21 Gaza Strip settlements could be evacuated within 48 hours, declaring that the opposition to the disengagement has failed. The army intends to pull out the last troops from Gaza in early October and turn over the land to the Palestinian Authority.

  • Chris McGreal, reporter for the London Guardian. He joins us on the line from one of the settlements in Gush Katif.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Gaza to speak with reporter Chris McGreal, a correspondent with the London Guardian. He joins us on the line from the settlement of Neve Dekalim. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Chris.

CHRIS McGREAL: Good afternoon.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening there right now?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, in Neve Dekalim, things have moved relatively slowly, partly because there’s been quite a large number of young infiltrators, ultranationalist kids who come from — many of them from the West Bank or from within Israel proper, rather than from the Gaza settlements. They came in to try and disrupt the whole process and are responsible for the burning barricades and the attempts to puncture tires of the security force vehicles and just generally setting up blockades that you have been talking about. That meant that last night some of the settlers who wanted to leave weren’t able to do so. So, much of this morning has been spent with those settlers willing to go without force being used are now being put onto buses and their furniture being moved into removal vans and then driven out.

As you say, there is negotiation going on between the settlement leadership here and the Israeli security forces. We’ll see how that works out. The Israeli army is taking the attitude that they want everybody out of the settlement by 7:00 p.m., which is within four hours, and I have to say that the way things are progressing, it’s hard to see how that’s going to happen. But there are many, many hundreds of police and Israeli soldiers in the settlement right now. And if they were to move in, I think then there would be quite a large number of people who would resist. We’re waiting to see what actually happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, can you describe who some of the people are who are resisting?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, there’s two kinds, really, and there’s a division between the two groups. The first group is, as I had mentioned to you, these young ultranationalists, what are known as “hilltop youth,” from the West Bank, who generally believe they’re not governed by the rule of law; they answer to a higher power. And they have come here to try and disrupt through any means possible, with the exception of violence, they say, disrupt the withdrawal so as to take what they say is rightfully part of the land of Israel. The other protesters are people who actually live in the settlement, have lived in the settlement for many years. These are families. They are not necessarily very happy about the tactics of the youth. They want to make, as a point of principle, they do not want to voluntarily get on the buses. They say they will have to be carried from their homes, they’ll have to be lifted on to the buses against their will. But they don’t intend, on the whole, to take to the streets and try and use sabotage. Many of those people have already shipped their furniture out in a realistic expectation that their days are numbered, but they simply weren’t prepared to walk out of the settlement voluntarily.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chris McGreal in a Gaza Strip settlement. You talk about settlers coming from the West Bank. What will happen to them?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, if you really need to be clear, their legal position is that they are in breach of the law and they could face arrest. They, right now, those that are caught are being put on buses and taken away by the police. Whether they will face charges or not, I suspect, will depend on whether the government feels that it’s politically worth their while to pursue this. I think it will also depend on whether, once all this is over, these young people, who are mostly in their teens, many of them girls, actually, whether they have caused sufficient disruption or whether there has been significant violence, as to whether it’s brought up to charge them. So far there’s only been really two assaults on the police. There was a very nasty incident yesterday when one of the settler youth threw ammonia into the eyes of a policeman. But that was the most serious incident we have had. And I suspect if it doesn’t go very much beyond that, the government will simply decide it’s not worth turning these young people into martyrs within a settler movement.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chris McGreal of the Guardian. He is in the Gaza Strip. Yesterday we talked to Amira Hass, the Israeli reporter from Ha’aretz. She said that there is, of course, a good deal of focus right now on 8,000 settlers. But what is not being talked as much about is the fact that there are 400,000 settlers who will remain in the West Bank.

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, indeed. And, in fact, one of the great debates about Ariel Sharon’s true intent here is whether pulling out of Gaza, removing a relatively small number, as you say, of 8,000 is really a means of protecting the 400,000 who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It seems that there’s twin messages that come out from the government, from Sharon. There’s the message to the outside world, which is solemnly, this is not the case. When Sharon’s Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held a press conference last week with the foreign press, he said categorically, 'There is no attempt to use this to consolidate our position in the West Bank. It's simply untrue, there’s no Israeli government policy of that kind.’ Interestingly, Ariel Sharon told the Israeli press today that getting out of Gaza protected the Israeli settlement — Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank, a twin message depending on the audience, and I think that, ultimately, because of the way that this has been unilaterally implemented, the way that the government has made it clear that it is not in the short term interested in negotiations with the Palestinians and, above all, because of the construction of the barrier through the West Bank and Jerusalem, I think many people here will conclude that the Gaza pullout is not unconnected with the fate of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, as we wrap up with Chris McGreal from Gush Katif settlement in the Gaza Strip. What do you expect will happen now?

CHRIS McGREAL: Well, I think one of the things that’s most interesting about this is that for all of the dramatic pictures that have been played out, particularly to the Israeli public, showing settlers weeping in the arms of weeping policemen and weeping soldiers, and the attempt to project this as a huge national trauma and as enormously difficult and, coincidentally, probably not able to be carried out in the West Bank, the fact that it has actually been rather un-traumatic in a national sense. I mean, obviously, people leaving their homes after 20 years, whatever the reason they were here, is very difficult. But at the same time, most are going, and going without some great protest, physical protest. And I think that that won’t go unnoticed by the rest of the Israeli public when the time comes to try and negotiate the fate of the West Bank. But there’s a general feeling that, under the present government of Mr. Sharon, it’s unlikely that those negotiations are going to move forward, and it will probably take another government before the benefits of pulling out of Gaza are actually realized.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal, I want to thank you very much for being with us. He’s in Gush Katif, in the Gaza Strip.

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