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Israel completes evacuation of 25 Jewish settlements in West Bank, Gaza

SHARE Israel completes evacuation of 25 Jewish settlements in West Bank, Gaza

SANUR, West Bank — Israeli soldiers cleared two militant strongholds Tuesday without major violence, completing the country's historic evacuation of 25 settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank — the first time Israel has abandoned Jewish communities in lands the Palestinians claim for their future state.

About 6,000 troops — armed with riot gear, circular saws, water hoses and wirecutters — were mobilized to overwhelm the last stand against the pullout in the West Bank settlements of Sanur and Homesh. The resistance was staged largely by 1,600 Israelis who didn't even live there — some of them youths known for their extremism and rejection of the Israeli government's authority.

But security officials' fears of armed violence didn't materialize, and the military declared the evacuation of the two settlements over just nine hours after troops stormed them.

Residents of the other two West Bank settlements slated for removal, Ganim and Kadim, had already left on their own. Military bulldozers Tuesday knocked down all the structures in Kadim, and were razing buildings in Ganim.

The demolition of homes in all evacuated settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will be completed in 10 days, said the Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.

In the West Bank, Israel is destroying homes to prevent Jewish extremists from returning there. The military fears that if left standing, these settlements could also become flashpoints of violence between settlers and Palestinians living in the area.

In Gaza, the Israeli government — after quiet consultations with the United States and the Palestinians — decided to demolish the private homes used by Jewish settlers, many of them single-family villas, and to leave most public buildings intact. The Palestinians felt the single-story houses were inappropriate for their housing needs in overcrowded Gaza, and many ordinary Gazans feared that corrupt Palestinian politicians and their cronies would appropriate settler villas.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Israel's withdrawal from all 21 Gaza Strip outposts and four isolated communities in the northern West Bank will improve Israel's security by reducing friction with the Palestinians, and solidify Israel's grip on main West Bank settlement blocs, where most of its 240,000 settlers live.

President Bush congratulated Sharon on the completion of the withdrawal, praising him for making "a tough decision" and saying the next step would be to establish a working government.

Subhi Alawneh, a 58-year-old farmer from the nearby Palestinian village of Jaba, said Tuesday "is a day of celebration" for the more than 40,000 Palestinians who live near Sanur. In another village, residents watched the evacuations with binoculars and handed out sweets.

"We were afraid of them all the time," Alawneh said, referring to the settlers. "After they are removed we will distribute sweets and show happiness, we will go out into the streets to celebrate."

In one of the few instances of Palestinian fire since the evacuations began, gunmen shot at Israeli troops patrolling an area a few miles from Sanur and Homesh on Tuesday. One militant was moderately wounded in the ensuing gunbattle.

Despite the lack of armed violence Tuesday, there was more force and few of the heart-rending scenes of personal pain that had taken center stage in the evacuation of Gaza in the preceding week.

Hundreds of protesters holed up inside an old British fortress in Sanur where most of the settlement's resisters had barricaded themselves. Troops carrying shields and wearing helmets sawed open the building's iron doors to bring out resisters, some with legs and arms thrashing, from the ground floor of the building as dozens of residents danced on the rooftop.

Some of the rooftop resisters wore orange stars of David on their shirts, reminiscent of the yellow stars Nazis forced Jews to wear. Their resistance was broken after cranes hoisted two metal containers carrying SWAT troops onto the roof of the building. Forces herded the dozens of rooftop holdouts inside the containers within a minute, and with that sweep, police declared the evacuation of Sanur over.

Earlier in the day, the main synagogue at Sanur was evacuated less than an hour after forces sawed open a barricade of iron bars at the synagogue's gates, and stormed inside to bring out about 30 people, most of them youths who left quietly. Troops who broke into a religious seminary in the settlement quickly carried out the 30 black-garbed ultra-Orthodox men holed up inside.

The toughest resistance in Homesh came at a religious seminary, where troops protected by shields used wirecutters to cut lengths of concertina wire that resisters had placed around the roof's perimeter. Troops threw off the roof furniture, a bed frame and a water heater placed as a barricade.

Resisters on the roof locked arms, but did not struggle when prodded onto the shovel of a bulldozer that lowered them to the ground. Troops with riot shields pinned them down inside the shovel to keep them subdued.

They then sawed through the window bars and main ground-floor gate of the building to carry out other protesters, who lay on the floor, arms locked, offering prayers and songs of praise to God. By late afternoon, security officials declared the seminary cleared.

While the seminary was being emptied, riot police stormed onto the roof of a house to remove a group of rioters who barricaded themselves behind coils of barbed wire and hurled eggs, tomatoes, cans of food and dirty liquid at police who held up shields to block the barrage.

Troops, who had aimed water hoses at the rioters to gain access to the house, encountered no signs of resistance once they climbed onto the roof.

Children of all ages roamed the streets of Homesh and Sanur, enlisted by their parents in what they view as an apocalyptic battle. In Homesh, a baby wailed in the arms of a policewoman who carried the child onto a bus whisking the evacuees away. In Sanur, a rescue worker was wet-eyed as he carried a baby out of one of the homes.

The showdown between troops and Jewish pullout opponents in Sanur and Homesh came just hours after Israel wound up its evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza. The entire operation, which had been scheduled to take four weeks, was over in just one.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called Israeli President Moshe Katzav on Tuesday to praise the withdrawal.

The past five years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed have put the Mideast peace process into a deep freeze, with Israel continuing to build in West Bank settlements and Palestinians failing to curb militant attacks on Israelis — both requirements of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

Associated Press correspondent Ramit Plushnick-Masti contributed to this report from Homesh.