GAZA WITHDRAWAL Leaving home: painful reality

By Thursday, 15 of 21 settlements were empty.
JERUSALEM -- The fight over Israel's pullout in Gaza may have ended some time ago in the majority of Israeli minds. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had decided; the Knesset had voted, and Israelis were told to absorb a new reality.
But nothing quite prepared Israelis -- wherever they fit in the political landscape -- for the torment of letting go.
Israeli forces broke the back of the resistance Thursday with surprising speed, pulling hundreds of protesters out of synagogues in the hard-line settlements of Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom.
Miles away at a cafe in Jerusalem, manager Amir Mintz shared a nation's pain.
"I can't watch it. It hurts," said Mintz, 27, a former army artillery fighter. "I believe in the disengagement, but they are all still my people."
"For me, this is worse than a terror attack," said Hana Sa'adon, 48, who manages a hair salon. Israelis see themselves in an epic struggle with Arabs, she said, and no one she knew ever imagined Jews in pitched battles with Jews.
"It will only reinforce the mess we have," Sa'adon said. "I fear, next, will be Jerusalem."
The pullout from Gaza was expected to last weeks. The emotional but short-lived showdown Thursday at Kfar Darom revealed how quickly history would be made.
On Wednesday, the first full day of disengagement, five of the 21 settlements in Gaza were emptied. By the end of the second day, Thursday, 15 were empty.
No one was seriously injured at Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom. About 160 people were taken into custody by Israeli troops and riot police armed with helmets and water cannons. The army said 655 people were evacuated from Kfar Darom, and more than 1,850 were taken out of Neve Dekalim.
Outside a kebab shop in Jerusalem, Gerard Zagoury followed the drama in Gaza on a big-screen television. "It's very difficult to watch because you can't condemn them -- either side," he said somberly, nursing a beer as soldiers and settlers erupted in a melee before his eyes.
"Brothers, soldiers, police. They're all doing things they don't want but they must do," said Zagoury, 60. "It's hard for all of Israel to see this."
Palestinian reaction
Palestinians watched the drama in satisfaction from the rooftops of their nearby homes. "I'm standing here without any fear that Israelis will shoot at me because their battle today is against themselves," said Mohammed Bashir, a farmer in the town of Deir al-Balah, near Kfar Darom.
Ned Seder, who is of Palestinian descent and lives in the Youngstown area, said he hopes the Palestinians can learn to live in peace. "I think the Palestinians should show the world that they can be talked to," he said.
Seder said he is glad that Israel lived up to its promise to evacuate the settlements. "History was made today," he said. "Today, Israel lived up to their promises. We don't have to have jihad ... it's time for peace."
Furious protests
The battle for Kfar Darom, tumultuous all day, was startling in its intensity by late afternoon. Up on the synagogue roof, the protesters were ready.
Barricaded behind loops of razor-wire, they shouted through bullhorns and flashed mirrors to reflect the blinding sun into the eyes of approaching Israeli troops. Then, they unleashed a barrage of paint-filled light bulbs, eggs, and bags of milk and dumped bucket after bucket of white paint, oil, and a blue-colored chemical onto soldiers and police below.
Troops fought back with blasts of water cannon. Holding wire-cutters, they climbed ladders made slippery with oil. From above, an army crane lowered a metal cage packed with helmeted soldiers onto the rooftop -- a tactic that eventually broke the daylong siege.
"I don't think I could do what they are doing," said Moshe Baruch, who served six years in the army before opening up a sandwich shop in Jerusalem.
"I know that area [Gaza] better than I know my own restaurant," he said. "It's bad that [the settlers] used whatever they did against the soldiers ... but what would you do if people would take you away from home?"
The furious protests marked the most violent opposition yet to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to cede Gaza to the Palestinians and alter the course of Mideast peacemaking. For the first time since evictions started early Wednesday, army and police encountered more than verbal abuse and passive resistance.
Lightly injured and covered in paint and oil, police officer Ron Fares said he sympathized with the settlers despite their aggression.
"When I was on the ladder I was determined," said the 30-year-old Fares, who led a squad of men at Kfar Darom. "When I got on the roof I was sensitive. These people are our brothers."

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