Israel army training soldiers to confront fellow citizens in Gaza withdrawal

When Israeli troops move in to evacuate Jewish settlers this summer, it's not bullets they worry about - it's the angry words.

Soldiers and police are set to evacuate about 9,000 settlers from all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four from the West Bank under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan, and many settlers have vowed to resist.

That means soldiers run the risk of violence to be sure, but more likely harsh verbal abuse from a foe who might be a relative or friend _ not an enemy from a foreign land.

Cadets at the army's officer training school, who will be in the closest contact with the settlers, are set to begin the physical training for the mission next month, the school's outgoing commander said Thursday.

But first they are receiving rigorous mental and psychological preparation for the confrontation that fills many of them with dread.

"The preparations, most of the time, involve talking to the soldiers, talking to them a lot," said the commander, Col. Gal Hirsch, speaking just before a ceremony to hand over the base, in an isolated, barren part of Israel, to his successor.

"This will be a mission we will do with tears in our eyes," Hirsch said. "This population, the settlers in Gaza, are our brothers."

While the army would try to keep the clashes to a minimum, his main priority, he said, was helping soldiers endure the predictable rage and insults from settlers _ their own people.

Such verbal clashes have happened before, when soldiers evacuated unauthorized West Bank outposts. Settlers shouted epithets at the soldiers, including "Nazis" and "murderers," troubling many soldiers.

"We try to give them the scenario of what is going to happen. We want them not to be hurt from the bad words they hear," Hirsch said.

Hirsch said the army explains to the troops that such words betray the deep emotions of the settlers who are being removed from their homes.

Also, cadets were being used because they are more mature than regular soldiers, he said. Other troops would not have contact with the settlers, but would be there to guard against violence from the Palestinians.

Officer cadets, who came up through the ranks and took part in the bitter fighting with the Palestinians over the past four years, said confronting fellow Israelis was a daunting challenge.

"What scares me most is having to use violence against my own people," said Beery Goodstein, 21.

Cadet Gabi Grabin, 21, who lives in a large West Bank settlement, said it would be very difficult for him, too. "We all have friends who live in Gaza," he said.

To allay their fears, Hirsch said the army would do what it could to minimize confrontation and treat the settlers with maximum tolerance. Also, the cadets will not be armed.

"In a democratic environment, people go to demonstrations, they can protest. We intend to let them act according to the Israeli law," he said. "When you use power against your brother it should be different from against your enemy. We must behave gently."

That is, unless the settlers break a taboo and turn violent.

While settler leaders have promised all resistance will be passive, concern has been raised that extremist elements may take up arms against the troops.

Hirsch said this was something the army can deal with. "We will be ready for such scenarios with special elite units that know exactly what to do."

During the disengagement, set to start in July, Israel will also show far less tolerance with the Palestinians who live around the Gaza settlements. Hirsch warned that if Israelis come under fire from the Palestinians during the evacuation, Israel will respond harshly.

The Palestinians _ who have experienced a number of devastating Israeli raids into Gaza during the last four years of fighting _ will "see something new," he said.

However, Hirsch said that he hoped that new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who declared an end to the violence at a summit last month with Sharon, would be able to maintain the calm.


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