Israel Completes Pullout Ahead of Schedule

NY Times
After breaking into a house in Homesh, Israeli security men were met by Asaf Zoldan, holding his son Aaron.

SANUR, West Bank – Completing an emotional pullout unmarred by serious violence, Israeli soldiers and police officers finished their evacuation of 25 settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on Tuesday and said all settler homes would be reduced to rubble within 10 days.

Israeli officials and commanders have insisted that the evacuation of nearly 10,000 Israelis from all of Gaza and four settlements on the West Bank was providing a “hand to a brother,” not warfare at all. But its rapid conclusion in six days, after predictions of three weeks or more, took Israel by surprise and seemed a softer version of the Six-Day War of June 1967, when Israel won a lightning victory over Arab foes.

It was in that war that Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and began building settlements for strategic, religious and economic reasons.

This rapid dismantling of all of the settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the West Bank is the first time that Israel has pulled its citizens from parts of the biblical land of Israel, areas that will be a cornerstone of any independent Palestinian state.

While Israelis belied predictions of a civil war, the pullout was painful and traumatic, filled with scenes and emotions as searing as the Gazan summer sun.

In Sanur, a dozen yeshiva students belonging to the Chabad group sang, danced and prayed feverishly, swaying and pounding the table and asking the Messiah to come to their aid. They insisted that soldiers and police officers pray and drink wine with them before taking them away.

For almost an hour the students, who had taken over an old mosque, talked to the security forces, hugged them and blessed them, as commanders negotiated with Rabbi Haim Smotrich, who brought his students here in April from another settlement, Qiryat Arba.

Suddenly Rabbi Smotrich said, “I’m not leaving from here,” and the students huddled in a corner, forcing the police and soldiers to unravel them and carry them away.

But it was Rabbi Smotrich who helped negotiate the relatively peaceful removal of harder-line protesters outside Sanur who had barricaded themselves on the roof of a well-constructed stone fortress, originally built as a police station and prison by the Ottomans.

Although the police feared violence from those on the roof, who had prepared themselves with razor wire, oil, rocks, paint and pikes to push off special police forces, in the end the takeover was almost symbolic.

The protesters wanted to be removed by containers lifted onto the roof by huge cranes, in a repetition of what happened last week in the most violent incident, the takeover of the synagogue at Kfar Darom in Gaza. The scenes there, with protesters spraying the police with paint and a caustic liquid and trying to hit them with poles, offended many Israelis and damaged the reputation of the pullout protest and its settler leaders.

They worked to control the violence on Tuesday, police and army commanders said.

And in the end, the police agreed to allow the protesters their dramatic exit in return for a pledge of little violence.

In one striking image, a gaunt, white-haired figure physically restrained one protester who tried to use his wooden pike to stab firefighters carrying a water hose. The rabbi took the pike away; the protester waited a few moments, then retrieved it, only to be met with a blast of water.

In Homesh, the police broke into the house of Asaf Zoldan, who had refused to come out. They used a chain saw and crowbar to remove the outer door and then had to remove another behind it. Inside, Mr. Zoldan, with his son Aaron, 6, his father, Nachman, and two teenage neighbors, Rachel and Malki Antman, were singing and dancing in circles to loud music.

The soldiers stood dumbfounded for nearly 10 minutes, then said they would leave and return 10 minutes later if the family did not leave voluntarily.

Mr. Zoldan then changed the music to lamentations; they all sat at the dining table and prayed, swaying and crying.

When the soldiers returned, Nachman Zoldan finally agreed to take out Aaron. But Asaf Zoldan, weeping, grabbed his son, pulled him onto his lap and cried loudly: “Remember you’re a hero! You’re a hero here! Don’t forget you’re a hero of Homesh!”

As the officers came back for him, Mr. Zoldan slipped out of their arms and under the table, where he grabbed a leg of it for dear life. The soldiers finally pried him out, distraught.

Also in Homesh, a group of 80 young women barricaded themselves inside a house vacated by a resident, and most had to be carried out by female officers; another group of 20 young women tied themselves together and threw bags of oil, vinegar, eggs and human waste at the policewomen. Another young woman stabbed a policewoman and was arrested and handcuffed; the police officer was not seriously injured.

While the evacuation of the four West Bank settlements on Tuesday pulled Jewish residents out of an area nearly twice the size of Gaza, near the large Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin, Israeli troops will continue to patrol the area, leaving responsibility for civilian and criminal matters in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.

In Gaza the military will need at least two more weeks to dismantle its own installations, said the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, and Palestinians will be allowed to enter later, with the date to be negotiated, he said. Israel intends to withdraw all of its military forces from Gaza, including the zone along the border with Egypt, by the end of the year, most likely in late October.

There are more than 116 settlements and settler outposts remaining in the West Bank – including major settlement blocs like Gush Etzion, Ariel near Tel Aviv and Maale Adumim near Jerusalem – that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says Israel intends to keep in any final treaty. Much of the world considers the Israeli settlements illegal; the United States regards them as “an obstacle to peace” and has demanded that Israel stop their expansion, a demand that Mr. Sharon has flatly rejected.

In fact, the relatively easy withdrawal of the past week may actually make it harder for Mr. Sharon to withstand pressure for further negotiated withdrawals from the West Bank, even though he insists that there will be no more such unilateral retreats.

In the Palestinian village of Deir Sharaf, near Sanur, the owner of the Supermarket Musa and his patrons all told stories of how the Israeli settlements and their army protectors had created constant disruptions in their ability to travel freely.

For most of the last five years, Abed Hussein Musa said, the military maintained a checkpoint on the street outside his store, often choking off traffic.

“We’re happy that the Israelis are removing the settlements, but much damage has already been done,” Mr. Musa said, pointing at the silent, nearly deserted street.

One of his sons, Hussein Musa, 43, said he had had to walk three miles along dirt paths on Tuesday because Israeli soldiers were not allowing any traffic to leave Nablus toward the area where the evacuations were taking place.

But there are restrictions in normal times, he said. “I’ve never been arrested by the Israelis,” he said. “I’m not a member of any political group and just want to make a living. But it’s often impossible for me to travel from one Palestinian town to the next.”

He expressed the hope that the Israeli withdrawal here would make travel much easier between Nablus and Jenin.