NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip – After 38 years of occupation and months of preparation and protest, Israel began its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip on Sunday by sealing off the region and preparing to deliver final eviction notices to thousands of Jewish settlers.
Soldiers closed border crossings between Israel and Gaza at midnight (2 p.m. PDT), and police erected roadblocks on routes leading to the predominantly Palestinian region in an attempt to minimize demonstrations by Jewish opponents of the withdrawal.
It now is illegal for Israelis to live in Gaza.
Palestinians planted flags and deployed troops near some Jewish settlements and called for the “liberation” of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Banners proclaiming “Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem” flew in Gaza City.
At the same time, thousands of defiant Israeli settlers and 5,000 supporters who flocked to Gaza gathered themselves for the next step: the arrival at each door today of Israeli soldiers and police officers carrying written evacuation orders and offering to pack the settlers’ belongings. The operation carries the title of Yad Ahim, or A Hand to our Brothers.
Despite that euphemistic touch, tensions were high in Gaza and throughout Israel.
As the day ended, skirmishes between young resisters and a small force of soldiers flared in Neve Dekalim, the largest Israeli town in Gaza, with 2,500 residents.
Demonstrators punctured tires of military vehicles and looted at least one jeep.
Anyone still there or in the 20 other Israeli villages and towns in Gaza on Wednesday will be subject to physical removal by 55,000 Israeli soldiers and police.
Some police officers and soldiers reported receiving phone calls from as far away as the United States, urging them to disobey orders and not participate in the operation.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other members of the Israeli government say the unilateral disengagement from Gaza is necessary to maintain Israel’s security and its hold on much of the West Bank. Critics call it a surrender to Palestinian attacks.
Interviewed Sunday night by Israeli television, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Israelis had “chosen the right path.”
“Don’t listen to the voices of the extremists, who want a continuation of the occupation,” he said. “I don’t want and I will not accept any clashes with the (Israeli) army or the settlers.”
As of Sunday, 1,127 of the estimated 1,700 Israeli families who lived in Gaza had applied for government compensation, according to Israeli officials, signaling some readiness to leave.
Many settlers have left already or are expected to mount only symbolic opposition, but authorities expect confrontations later this week with resisters and some of the militant, mostly young Israelis who’ve traveled to the region in recent days.
“Monday (today) and Tuesday are the days that will give us a clear picture of the level of opposition we will face,” said Moshe Karadi, the chief of Israel’s national police force.
“In any case, we, along with the (army), are prepared for the worst case.”
On the other side of the divide, the Palestinian Authority, locked with more militant forces in a battle for support of the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, began deploying as many as 7,500 security personnel around the Israeli settlements.
Their mission: prevent Palestinian attacks that could sabotage the withdrawal. It could be a challenge.
Early Sunday, Palestinian gunmen fired on Kfar Darom. An Israeli tank returned fire at one assailant, but accidentally hit an Israeli vehicle. Five soldiers were wounded.