In a surprise evacuation that served as a precursor to Israel's planned evacuation of Gaza this summer, Israeli forces overwhelmed some 150 diehard opponents of the withdrawal Thursday who were holed up in an abandoned seaside hotel.
Worried that a series of violent attacks on Palestinians by Jewish extremists in recent days would disrupt the planned Aug. 9 pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank, Israel sent some 700 police and security forces to surround squatters living in the Palm Beach Hotel.
Prior to the assault, the military sealed off the Gush Katif settlement block, declaring it a closed military zone, in order to prevent reinforcement of antidisengagement activists, reportedly in route from Israel and the West Bank, from entering Gaza.
For the past month, Jewish extremists - religious students and families with young children - in the hotel have been stockpiling water, food, and tools and putting barbed-wire around the hotel. They vowed to use the hotel, overlooking the Mediterranean, as a base of hardened resistance against the pullout.
Military and police commanders said the first major showdown with disengagement opponents was over in about 40 minutes with only four arrests.
But the increasing brazenness in which the Jewish activists are beginning to fight disengagement is casting doubt on the government's plan to remove 8,500 settlers without igniting massive Israeli resistance.
Thursday buses carried groups of young squatters away from the resort. Some were in handcuffs and flashing "victory" signs to pro-settler demonstrators gathered along the road about a mile away from the hotel. Army and police officers insisted that the closure of the settlements was temporary and said that Thursday's operation was not part of the disengagement.
"We planned for a scenario that was much longer and much more difficult," says Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of the Israeli military's southern command. "We don't intend to allow the extremists to return here. They acted like thugs."
After the operation at the hotel, black smoke from tires set aflame by the protesters billowed into the sky. Some left peacefully when asked, while others were dragged out by their arms and legs. No one resisted violently.
"The police came and they climbed on the roof. Neither side used much force," says Nadav, who refused to give his last name. He came from Jerusalem to live at the hotel a week ago with his wife and two infant children. "This situation is painful [because] they are expelling us from heaven."
In the past week, young activists from the hotel moved into an abandoned Palestinian house and were involved in wounding a Palestinian youth, who was injured when some of the Jewish youths cornered him, throwing stones at him and beating him unconscious. The incident was caught on film and sparked widespread condemnation across Israel.
"It's not a civil war, but it's pushing toward anarchy," said Yitzhak Dar, a former member of Israel's Shin Bet secret services, in an interview on Israeli radio. "We need to stop this deterioration."
Squatters in the hotel had been encouraging Jewish activists throughout Israel to join them, arguing that thousands of reinforcements would give the Israeli army no alternative but to call off the withdrawal.
"The rest of the world is in danger if we capitulate. The Arabs say we put Sharon on his knees. By preventing the evacuation of Gaza we will save not only Gush Katif, but Samaria, Israel, and all of Western civilization," says Nadia Matar, a spokeswoman for the Jewish activists who were living in the hotel.
Israel has been putting intense pressure on the Palestinian Authority to rein in militants ahead of withdrawal. Its action against the pullout opponents Thursday was a test of its ability to control its own extremists - and officials hoped the hotel raid would deter others seeking to disrupt the pullout.
The army said in a statement that because of the recent violence, "the head of the southern command ... signed a closure order preventing nonresidents from entering the Gaza Strip."
Some of the extremists inside the Palm Beach Hotel belong to the outlawed Kach movement. The squatters were mostly from hard-line enclaves in the West Bank, not from Gaza settlements slated for evacuation.
In an interview published Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he has ordered police to crack down on the extremists. "This bothers me exceptionally. This is an act of savagery, vulgarity, and irresponsibility," Sharon told the Haaretz daily. "The country's citizens must understand this danger, and every measure must be taken to end this rampaging."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.