In pullout, Israel battles its own

Israel's disengagement from Gaza began early Monday with clashes between soldiers and protesters.

It's just before midnight Sunday, a half hour before the Israeli army declares Gaza a closed military zone - and a place that will soon no longer be a part of Israel at all. Bands of young people begin to circle the Israeli army jeep at the entrance of this, the largest settlement in the Gaza Strip, and harassing the soldiers inside.

In the turn of minutes, protesters disabled the jeep's engine. Soldiers are angry and settlers are jeering. The jeep, its tires suddenly flattened by young hands with puncturing tools, slowly moves out of the settlement as the youths harass the Israeli soldiers on their way.

And then it is here: the day Israel has slated to begin its withdrawal, 38 years after it arrived, from the Gaza Strip.

But in the heat and the dark it becomes a situation that the army seems not to have expected - at least not this soon.

Monday's start of disengagement, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had hoped would mark a momentous step toward better security for Israelis if not peace with the Palestinians, is morphing into a troubling domestic battle of a sort that Israel has never seen before.

Never before have Israelis seen their own youth use tactics that seem to be lurching toward those used by young Palestinians protesters in the intifada.

Emboldened by the mobbing of the next jeep and then a hummer, by the time the third vehicle tries to get through the growing crowd, the young people are violently shaking the soldiers inside and riding on the hood and roof. A window is broken, soldiers are shouting, satellite maps of the Gaza Strip are stolen and spilled all over the road. The crowd grows so out of hand that other Israeli military vehicles trying to get through are advised to turn away until daybreak.

"It was almost a lynching," says Shaul Goldstein, who is a West Bank leader of the settlers council, or Yesha. Mr. Goldstein was exasperated when a well-known rabbi who, while trying to help extricate the soldiers from the mob, was himself jostled and shouted down. "It's really getting violent," he says, "and it has to be stopped."

Part of the problem is the mixed message that settler leaders have been sending out. It says resist with all your power and might, do what you need to do, and at the same time, don't use violence.

"I'm pushing the rabbis and leaders to define things more clearly - what are the borders of passive resistance," says Goldstein. "Until now, no one's done it very clearly."

In fact, the resistance has seemed entirely active. It started with an announcement that settlers would lock the gates of all settlements Monday, before Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troops were due to arrive at 7 a.m.

Many of the smaller settlements - and in particular the less religious or ideological ones - allowed the army to come inside their gates. But here in Neve Dekelim, settlers locked the gates and stood in the sun singing songs, defying the fanned-out forces of the Israeli army who tried to break through.

The army decided to play it cool, sending in only a small number of forces through a back entrance, where they were met with protesters pushing for scuffles and burning tires. Policemen were sent to visit houses to ask if families needed help in arranging for plans to leave, and instead found themselves shouted down by residents who wanted them out.

As the broiling morning wore on, the IDF's plans changed. It would not, for now, go in to five of the most hard-line communities, which some journalists have dubbed "Alamo settlements" because they are expected to be the backdrop for the most raucous confrontations during evacuation. The planned door-to-door campaign, in which friendly Israeli soldiers would issue a two-day warning of the impending evacuation and offer their assistance in leaving, did not happen in Netzarim, Kfar Darom, Azmona, Katif, and Dugit. The IDF did not go into these communities, it says, because leaders in them asked them not to come inside: they would pass on the warning themselves.

"We're not here to confront," says Capt. Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the IDF. "We're trying to do this in the best possible way, under the circumstances. We'll all have to show more patience."

Captain Dallal says that the Israeli military's strategy will not change due to the tense standoff with the more militant settlements and the previous night's lawless behavior.

"These are acts of vandalism and it's not acceptable," Dallal says. "But we have to make a clear distinction of acts of a few hotheads who are not from the area ... and the real people we are evacuating, who have been there for several years. The people who don't belong there will be evicted as soon as we get there."

Elsewhere in the Gaza Strip Monday, as Israeli troops handed out eviction notices they were not met by protesters. In Morag, it was an operation filled with hugs and wails of anguish.

Longtime Morag settler, Yaacov Reuven greeted the IDF contingent in what was once his living room and now looks more like a storage room spilling over with odds and ends. Accepting the eviction order with almost open arms, Reuven explained he was not interested in violence and God forbid, he says, clashes with Israeli security forces.

"I know I have to leave and tomorrow my family and I will wake up and will no longer be here," Reuven said from his large backyard.

On the other side of the settlement, the Unterman family dug in its heels preparing for a long and possibly violent standoff with evacuating forces.

Meeting the army entourage at the entrance to his two-story house, Yuval Unterman tore his shirt in a sign of religious mourning as an IDF officer handed him the evacuation order. His wife - Mihal - standing alongside him and their six children, tore up the order and with tears in her eyes begged the soldiers to refuse orders.

Yaakov Katz contributed to this report from the Morag settlement in southern Gaza.

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