| An Israeli soldier comforts a colleague after he faced a man with a baby in his arms who admonished him for expelling them from Gaza’s Atzmona settlement. (AFP)
Katif (Gaza Strip), Aug. 21 (Reuters): Israel completed the evacuation of its main settlement bloc in occupied Gaza today as settlers set aside confrontation in favour of prayer with troops sent to remove them.
Synagogues, bastions of resistance in settlements emptied last week, became gathering points for the peaceful departure of dozens of families from territory Israel captured 38 years ago and which Palestinians want for a state.
Israeli troops cleared out the settlements of Atzmona, Katif and Slav today, the last remaining inhabited settlements in a sprawling cluster in southern Gaza known as Gush Katif. “I can declare the Gush Katif bloc empty of residents,” said Israeli police spokesman Avi Zelba.
Troops also entered Elei Sinai and Nissanit in north Gaza to extract a few families who stayed past the August 16 deadline. The army will go into the remote central enclave of Netzarim tomorrow, finishing its shutdown of all 21 Gaza settlements.
It intends to remove two of 120 settlements in the West Bank later this week, wrapping up a limited “disengagement plan”, but faces violent resistance there from radical Jewish newcomers.
The bulk of resistance last week was mounted by radical outsiders from West Bank settlements who made stands at Neve Dekalim, the biggest settlement in Gaza, and Kfar Darom.
Today, settlers took part in an afternoon prayer service in Katif and Atzmona, along with soldiers sent to collect them, then walked to waiting buses or their cars and left for Israel. “It is with great difficulty that we must continue and go forth together and take the orange spirit with us,” Rabbi Noah Vishonsky, citing the colour of opposition to the Gaza pullout, told his congregation in the settlement of Katif.
Some cars were draped in orange with stars of David and bore placards saying “refugees from Gush Katif” and “expelled”.
Police official Sharon Brown said the latest departures were “done with dignity, calm and no hysterical behaviour”.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bills the pullout as “disengagement” from conflict with the Palestinians and US-led mediators regard the move as a catalyst for reviving a West Asian peace process frozen since 2000.
Addressing army evacuation squads at a camp today, Sharon said: “Truly, you have done something here that was unbearably difficult ' very difficult for the residents, difficult for you, but essential for the State of Israel.”
With Palestinian agreement, Israeli forces began demolishing vacated houses in two of the settlements today.
Protesters in Katif set bales of hay, tyres and wooden crates ablaze at its main entrance ' but troops easily bypassed the barricade. In a sign of possible violence to come, several hundred young ultranationalists poured out of the hilltop West Bank settlement of Sanur and briefly blocked army bulldozers trying to carve out an encampment for troops.