Police clashes in Gaza with pullout opponents, 50 detained

Police trying to clear a path for trucks scuffled with hundreds of local pullout opponents who threw empty water bottles and torched a garbage. At least 50 people in were detained in Gaza's largest settlement.

The confrontation in Neve Dekalim erupted just hours ahead of a midnight (2100 GMT Tuesday) deadline for all Jewish settlers to leave the Gaza Strip voluntarily or face forcible removal. Officials said they were hopeful at least half the settlers would leave before the deadline, but warned of tough action against anyone who resists.

After failing to enter Neve Dekalim on Monday, police burst into the community early Tuesday and dismantled the main entrance gate to clear the way for some 120 moving trucks to enter. Officers cut the electric gate with a saw, then dragged the metal barrier away and threw it on the side of a road.

Within hours, a large crowd of predominantly young people blocked the entrance to Neve Dekalim and refused to let the trucks enter. When security forces tried to push back the crowd, scuffles erupted.

Protesters set fire to a garbage container, and white paint splattered in the road. Protesters, who wore the orange color of pullout opponents, pelted police with plastic water bottles while a water cannot put out the fire. Several people had bloody faces, four officers were hurt.

"We will do all we can to protect ourselves against the wolves," said Yehuda Glick, a protest leader who urged security forces to disobey orders. "How can you do this to another Jew?"

The army said 50 people were detained and expelled from Gaza, and police were seen carrying off flailing protesters grabbing them by their arms and legs. After several hours, traffic remained at a standstill.

"If the settlement is struggling to survive, then everybody should stay," said Libby Weinberger, a U.S.-born Israeli who came to Neve Dekalim from the Israeli town of Raanana.

As the standoff continued, a family of settlers tried to leave Neve Dekalim in a jeep carrying four mattresses on the roof and pulling a small trailer. A young girl inside was crying as the crowd prevented the vehicle from moving.

The three-week operation to evacuate Gaza began Monday with the distribution of eviction notices to settlers. Israel plans to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank. It is the first time Israel has removed veteran settlements from either area, which are claimed by the Palestinians for a future, independent state.

By midday Tuesday, three Gaza settlements and two West Bank communities were empty, while five other Gaza settlements were rapidly thinning out, Israeli media said. But people in several communities appeared to be digging in for a fight.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he was determined to enforce the law and to complete the withdrawal "in as little time as possible." He said it would be decided later Tuesday in which order the settlements will be dismantled. He said he expected at least half of Gaza's 8,500 residents to be out by midnight.

Mofaz also told the Palestinians that it was too early to celebrate. He said that after the last settler is evacuated, it would take at least another month before Israel hands the settlement areas to the Palestinians. "We have told them this at every meeting, but I believe it still haven't grasped that," he told a news conference.

Jewish settlers have vowed to resist the pullout peacefully. But officials estimate some 5,000 Jewish extremists from outside Gaza, many of them fervently religious teenagers, have infiltrated the settlements in recent weeks. In some cases, residents said the outsiders weren't entirely welcome.

"These people have another home. They are dealing less with the pain than with the war," said Ayala Ben-Simhon, a Neve Dekalim resident who planned to leave on Tuesday.

Police spokesman Avi Zelba said about 500 people illegally in Gaza were arrested overnight, and dozens were caught trying to enter from Israel.

Brig. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, the army commander in Neve Dekalim, said the standoff was a sign of what lies ahead. "There will be places where it will be easier and there are places where it will require many more forces," he told Israel TV.

In the isolated Gaza settlement of Morag, leaders screamed out codewords over a loudspeaker ordering residents to go into hiding - preparations for the arrival of Israeli troops.

About one-third of the settlement's 220 residents had left by early Tuesday, and many others were packing up. However, the army said an estimated 300 hardline outsiders remained holed up in the settlement.

Elsewhere in Gaza, residents of the Bedolah settlement torched three cars and vowed to burn down their houses ahead of the withdrawal.

In central Gaza, the hardline settlement of Netzarim showed no signs of preparing to leave. Residents spent the night in a communal celebration, singing and dancing and waving orange flags.

In a televised speech Monday evening, Sharon praised Gaza's settlers as "pioneers," but insisted that it is time for Israel to leave the area after 38 years of occupation.

"We cannot hold Gaza for good," he said. "More that a million Palestinians live there, doubling their numbers every generation."

Sharon also urged Palestinian leaders to control extremists. "To an outstretched hand of peace, we will respond with an olive branch, but fire will be met by fire more intense than ever," he said.

In the Palestinian town of Khan Younis, Palestinian children rushed toward the wall of a nearby Jewish settlement and placed a flag from the Hamas militant group on it - prompting Israeli soldiers to fire warning shots.

Palestinian police struggled to keep the children away from the wall, an almost daily occurrence this week. The Hamas rally in southern Gaza occurred as some 2,000 people, most of them children and teens, marched through town to celebrate Israel's pullout from Gaza. About 200 masked gunmen, carrying rocket launchers and machine guns, were among the marchers.

"This is only the first step to liberating all of Palestine including Jerusalem east and west and every inch of Palestinian land from the sea to the river," said Hamas spokesman Younis al-Astal.

Hamas and other militant groups have been seeking to portray the Israeli withdrawal as a victory for violent resistance. Israel fears that perception could lead to further militant attacks after the pullout.

The Palestinians have deployed 7,500 security forces to prevent attacks on Israelis during the pullout, and promise to maintain law and order after the withdrawal.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and other Palestinian leaders began a campaign to clean up Gaza's streets under the slogan, "Gaza Clean and Beautiful." Qureia wore a T-shirt saying, "Today Gaza. Tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem."

Palestinians insist the pullout must be a first step toward a peace agreement giving them an independent state that also includes the entire West Bank and east Jerusalem, the AP reports.

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