Faster than expected, Israel completes pullout

Not meeting tough resistance from opponents, Israel finished removing about 9,000 residents from 25 Jewish settlements.

Israel's withdrawal of about 9,000 residents from 25 Jewish settlements ended Tuesday.

The evacuation of settlers, as well as about 6,000 protesters, was finished far ahead of schedule and without the level of violent resistance that military officials had predicted here and in Sa-Nur, the last two enclaves cleared since forcible removal of settlers began last week.

In a period of just six working days, Israel undid some of its most controversial gains from the Six-Day War of 1967, when it occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After evicting the settlers and protesters, Israeli army officials say that the hardest work of the disengagement process is done.

Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz says that the demolition of the homes, which have already started in Gaza, should be complete in 10 days.

Soon after 7 a.m. Tuesday, when an Israeli army bulldozer broke through a front gate piled with barbed wire and burning tires, 5,000 soldiers and police officers fanned out around the settlement and began prying out families - many of them newcomers who recently moved here, and others, residents of nearly a quarter-century.

Most difficult, according to the army's own predictions, would be the approximately 1,000 radical right-wing protesters here who were expected to resist evacuation forcefully, potentially with firearms or explosives.

The worst-case scenarios, however, never materialized. Although some of the activists resisted physically - 19 members of security forces and five settlers were injured as a result - the settlers' tactics were primarily limited to kicking or punching, or throwing things.

During a standoff at a religious seminary building and a synagogue, where many young men had holed up, soldiers were pelted with rocks and paint, but also flour and rotten eggs. Troops responded with water cannons, and used buzzsaws and crowbars to cut their way into the locked buildings before dragging out each of the men inside.

Settler leaders here accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the army for exaggerating the threat of violence as a way to paint the activists as extremists.

"The prime minister continues to demonize us. We will continue to pray and to resist, but we will do all of these things without violence," says Bentzi Lieberman, the chairman of the Yesha council, the main organization representing the settlers. "The real violence is destroying homes and throwing out the residents."

As the scorching air filled with the sounds of settlers singing religious songs and soldiers kicking in doors, protesters' attempts to attack soldiers were diffused. When youth from one rooftop rained stones and other objects on police below, the officers quickly climbed ladders and overcame the protesters.

In nearby Sa-Nur, police managed to overpower protesters, who were perched on the roof of a compound once used as a British military headquarters, by using a crane to lift cages full of riot policemen to the rooftop. The cages would be moved back down with detainees inside.

From the roof, a right-wing member of parliament, Aryeh Eldad, said the images of the evacuation would bring down Mr. Sharon, who is suffering from a great deal of criticism within his own Likud party. A narrow majority of Israelis, according to polls, support the disengagement plan, which has been cautiously welcomed by Palestinian officials.

"The last picture from Sa-Nur will be that of a Torah scroll inside a cage. With that picture, we will overthrow Sharon," Mr. Eldad yelled from the rooftop.

With the evacuation of these last settlements came a certain resignation from settlers who knew their battle was already lost.

At one end of Homesh, a young grandmother named Zehava Shalom was packing the last bits of her things in her spacious home on a hilltop amid dozens of Palestinian villages. "There's no choice," she says, watching a column of soldiers pass her by with a look of disbelief on her face. "This is like a horror film."

But at the other end of this settlement, Mrs. Shalom's pregnant daughter, a mother of three, had not packed so much as a picture on the wall. "I didn't think it would happen," says Almog Meni, as she watched her neighbors being removed from their home, live on television.

Although it has been a turbulent and emotional week for many Israelis, it is also a moment many are noting with a sense of history.

More than 38 years after seizing the Gaza Strip from Egyptian control and the West Bank from the Jordanians, this marks the first time that Israel has ever dismantled a fully rooted settlement on land that Palestinians claim for a future state. Recognizing Sharon's domestic difficulties stemming from the disengagement plan, intended as a unilateral move to diffuse a few of the sore points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Bush offered praise for the prime minister's initiative.

"I want to congratulate Prime Minister Sharon for having made a very tough decision," Bush said. "It's a very hopeful period. I applaud Prime Minister Sharon for making a decision that has really changed the dynamics on the ground."

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