Pullout opponents make last stand in synagogues

In a day of emotional clashes, Israeli troops worked to pry the last holdouts and protesters from Gaza.

Avital Agami started her day in denial of the fact that the struggle against Israel's disengagement was lost.

"They'll come back!" the recent high school graduate cried when informed that only 35 of the nearly 500 families who lived in this settlement still remained.

Surrounded by friends, she blamed the news media for trying to suppress their struggle. "Why are you only reporting on the people who were expelled?"

But the opponents of disengagement made certain their story was told Thursday when they made a last stand, barricading themselves in two synagogues until Israeli forces marched in and carried them off, one by one.

Scenes of young people being dragged from the settlement's houses of worship, tears rolling down the faces of soldiers and protesters alike, were upsetting even to Israelis who support the pullout. And many settlement leaders hope those images will be imprinted on the mind of the nation - making it all the more difficult for Israel to tolerate further withdrawals from the land it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"I hope that, for many Israelis, the trauma of these days will bring them to the conclusion that evacuating a settlement is something that should not be repeated," says Yuri Stern, a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, from the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party.

Mr. Stern, along with a handful of other rightist political figures - including the former Soviet refusenik and author Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky - was among those who had arrived here in recent days to make a point of their opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

Stern says he worries that Palestinians will see the withdrawal as evidence that violence against Israel brings results. "The Palestinians have no other way to make sense of this pullout than to think that it is because of the intifada," he says. "Disengagement is a fait accompli at this stage, but the war is about the survival of the state of Israel. If you lose one battle, you don't give up on the whole war."

But the battle here was to prevent the Gaza Strip settlements from being evacuated. This was what thousands of protesters were told over many months of the antidisengagement campaign. Few of them were prepared for the likelihood that they were fighting a losing battle.

Gaza has been illegal for outsiders to enter for several weeks now, but Ms. Agami entered by using someone else's identity card. She spent the past month in this settlement, excited by the settlement leaders' promises that masses of people like her could stop disengagement. She left Thursday, weeping and weary from an intense day of singing and praying for divine intervention.

Others, however, did not limit their opposition to civil disobedience.

Nearby, in the settlement of Kfar Darom, extreme right-wing protesters climbed onto the rooftops of the buildings and poured oil, paint, and sand to beat back Israeli forces trying to climb up to get them. Troops and police used water cannons and cages to put down the rebellion. Forty-four Israeli troops were injured in the standoff, and more than 100 were arrested, according to an Israeli army spokesman.

The violence, however, was more of the exception than the rule today. Most of settlers and protesters - while expressing dismay, anger, and even disgust over the disengagement plan - found the idea of fighting their own troops to be even more intolerable.

In fact, amid the troubling scenes pitting Israeli vs. Israeli, there were some small signs of reconciliation.

While many evacuees shouted, "Shame on you!" at the soldiers, one of the leaders of the synagogue protesters got on the community-wide public-announcement system and said: "Soldiers, we love you. We understand you're doing you're job. Remember Neve Dekelim."

Mainstream settler leadership says now they must focus on more practical matters: housing for all the people who have left or have been forcibly removed from their homes this week. Critics said that Mr. Sharon was so focused on sticking to his withdrawal deadline, set only last March, that he did not allow for enough time to find new living arrangements for everyone.

"We're working to give solutions to all of those families who have been uprooted. We're delivering people food, and helping see what they need at the hotels," says Shaul Goldstein, the deputy chairman of Yesha, the settler's council. The organization's name itself is about to become an anachronism: it's an acronym for the Hebrew names of the West Bank and Gaza, which will soon cease to be a part of Israel.

Israeli army officials say they expect the evacuation of all Gaza settlers to be completed by early next week.

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