Israel set deadline for Gaza settlers

Israel claimed Monday it gave 24 hours for the settlers to leave the Gaza strip, otherwise the Israeli police will have to remove them by force.

Following the midnight order to formally outlaw the continued presence of Israelis in the territory after a 38-year occupation, thousands of soldiers and police were going door-to-door in each of the 21 Gaza settlements with the eviction notices under the terms of the government's disengagement plan.

"I can confirm that the process of notification has begun," an army spokesman was quoted as saying by The News24.

The handing out of the eviction notices began around seven hours after the main Kissufim junction into Gaza was closed to the settlers for the last time.

"From this moment on, all entrance and stay in Gaza is prohibited for Israelis by law," army spokeswoman Major Sharon Feingold told press during a closing ceremony at the main crossing point into the settlements.

Defiant settlers, some swaying in prayer, blocked entrances to several settlements with makeshift barricades and their bodies in a bid to prevent security forces moving in to knock on doors and tell people they must get out by Wednesday.

Eviction notices to the 9,000 settlers in all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank went into effect at midnight on Sunday, setting the stage for what could be one of the most traumatic chapters in the Jewish state's history, according to Reuters.

The pullout, claimed by Palestinian militants as a victory and decried by Israeli opponents as a surrender to violence, will mark the first evacuation of Jewish settlements from land Palestinians want for a state.

The presence of a few thousand Israelis in Gaza among 1.3 million Palestinians has become a security burden, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying by AP. "The state of Israel does not want to be in the Gaza Strip and does not need to be in the Gaza Strip," he told Israel TV.

Thousands of Palestinian police moved into positions near Jewish settlements with orders to keep away Palestinian crowds and to prevent attacks by militants during the pullout, something that Israel warned would bring harsh retaliation.

Palestinians were amazed that the pullout was happening.

Palestinian residents watched settlers packing up. "They are actually leaving. Who would have ever thought?" said Palestinian farmer Ziyad Satari, 40, standing on the roof of his three-story home in the Palestinian town of Khan Younis, which overlooks the Morag settlement.

Hundreds of supporters of the militant Islamic Jihad group celebrated in Gaza City, with gunmen firing in the air, and teens setting off fire crackers and distributing sweets. The violent Hamas group organized special midnight prayers of thanks at Gaza mosques.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas offered the Israelis reassurance.

"We tell the Israeli people, `You have chosen the right path,"' he told Channel 10 TV. "This is the right path. Don't listen to the voices of the extremists who want a continuation of the occupation. I don't want, and I will not accept, any clashes with the army or the settlers."

However, there were exchanges of fire early Monday between soldiers and Palestinians near the Kfar Darom settlement, and mortar shells fell in two settlements and near an army base. No casualties were reported.

The Gaza settlers have until Wednesday to leave on their own, then troops are to haul them out forcibly.

"It is O.K. to cry with them," the army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told commanders in urging troops to show understanding of the traumatic time for settlers. During the two-day grace period, "we are there to take it and not to dish it out," he added.

However, once forcible removal begins, soldiers will act with determination, Halutz said.

Many hope the pullout from the territory Israel captured in 1967 will be the start of a true partition of historic Palestine between Arab and Jew, AP reminds.

Others fear it is a ploy by Sharon to get rid of areas he doesn't consider crucial to Israel while consolidating control of parts of the West Bank, where the vast majority of the 240,000 Jewish settlers live.

The Palestinians want to create their own state out of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with east Jerusalem as their capital.

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