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Tearful settlers leave last Gaza enclave

Netzarim (Gaza Strip), Aug. 22 (Reuters): Tearful but resigned, settlers left the Gaza Strip’s last Jewish enclave today to complete the evacuation of the territory after nearly four decades of occupation.

“It’s basically finished,” Major-General Dan Harel, chief of Israel’s southern command, said in Netzarim, where soldiers were trying to coax a last scattering of settlers to board buses to Israel.

But in the West Bank, radicals opposed to ceding settlements dug in for a last stand at two enclaves that also are due to be removed under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pullout plan.

In Netzarim, there was no sign of the noisy protests or burning barricades that greeted the evacuation of some of the other 20 settlements in Gaza last week. Soldiers joined settlers in two hours of tearful prayers.

Then, men hugged each other and set off on a mournful last procession carrying on their shoulders the large candelabra, or menorah, they removed from the synagogue.

The scene, played out in front of television cameras, was similar to the one depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome in which Roman soldiers bear the sacred Menorah taken as booty from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after they destroyed it.

“We are leaving against our will, but we are not going with our heads bowed,” said Rabbi Tzion Tzion-Tawil. “The saplings which are being uprooted here, we will replant throughout the country until we make our return to Netzarim.”

The World Court has branded Israel’s settlements in Gaza and the West Bank illegal. Israel disputes this.

The religious farming community of Netzarim, one of the first settlements established in Gaza after the 1967 war, had been a frequent target for militants. Palestinians particularly resented Netzarim because it almost cut the strip in two.

Settlers headed out of Netzarim in buses and cars piled high with belongings under army escort through the strip of sand and barbed wire, guarded by Israeli tanks, that leads through Palestinian-run territory to Israel.

“I hope that our tragedy will be over soon,” said Palestinian farmer Rashaad Badawi, near Netzarim.

Despite the scenes of settlers being dragged weeping from homes and protesters carried screaming from synagogues, evacuations of the 8,500 Gaza settlers have taken two weeks less than expected.

But more clashes are expected at Sanur and Homesh, two West Bank settlements due to be removed tomorrow whose numbers are swollen by hundreds of youths from the most radical outposts.

Pullout opponents hope to make those withdrawals so traumatic it will be much harder to ever consider giving up more settlements in the West Bank ' to which Israelis see a much stronger biblical claim than to tiny Gaza.

On top of a hulking stone citadel in Sanur, youths stockpiled supplies and welded metal rods into barricades to repel Israeli troops. Draped at the top, a banner proclaimed: “Damned is the one who expels his brother from his home.”

But settler leaders said they planned only non-violent resistance. Police took up positions at the entrance with a water cannon on standby.

Rightists say the pullout, celebrated as a victory by militants, rewards the Palestinian uprising since 2000. Most Israelis back the plan and Washington hopes it will serve as a catalyst for renewed peacemaking.

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