Gaza Settlement Era Ends With Netzarim Evacuation

Settlers carry menorah, Torah through Netzarim; rabbi: We're leaving against our will, but not with heads bowed.

Residents of the last Gaza settlement bid an emotional farewell to their homes Monday afternoon, before boarding the buses that took them out of Netzarim and marked the end of Israel's settlement enterprise in area of land between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

"It's basically finished," Israel Defense Forces GOC Southern Command, Major General Dan Harel, told reporters in Netzarim, where soldiers were trying to coax the final scattering of settlers to board buses to Israel.

The embattled and isolated settlement was the target of countless Palestinian terror attacks and the enclave which many had believed would be dismantled before all others.

By late afternoon, Hagai Dotan, the police commander overseeing evacuation, said most of the settlers were on their way to Jerusalem.

"It's tougher to see them go quietly, not fighting," Dotan said, watching the tearful and resigned settlers board the convoy. A settlement leader sat at the front of the first bus clutching a Torah scroll.

The residents of the settlement had gathered for a final prayer service before leaving the enclave.

In the synagogue, residents prayed together with the soldiers who guarded them over the years, before leaving with the Torah scrolls cradled in the arms of Netzarim old-timers.

The settlers then carried the synagogue's menorah, earlier removed from the roof, through the streets of Netzarim on their shoulders. The scene was reminiscent of images depicted on the Arch of Titus, which shows Romans carrying away a menorah and other booty looted from the Second Temple during the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

"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."

Some of the settlers then boarded the buses for their departure without resistance, while clashes broke out between some of the settlers and police and soldiers, and a policewoman sustained light injuries.

The settlers evacuated from Netzarim were initially taken to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. At the time of the evacuation, there were 80 veteran families at the settlement, along with 20 families of newcomers, about 500 people in all.

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz visited Netzarim early Monday to meet with leaders of the settlement, who promised to work to prevent violence during the evacuation.

But the settlement officials warned that there was a group of youths who had infiltrated the settlement, and that the young protesters might not abide by the "ground rules" agreed upon by the army and the residents.

Settlers overnight called police to arrest and eject three right-wing activists who had written slogans on walls, including "Sharon, Hitler is proud of you," and "[Rabin assassin] Yigal Amir, we need you."

The three, who were found with paint, flammable liquids and tire-puncturing spikes, are a part of a group of up to six activists who apparently entered the settlement in the trunks of cars.

Symbol and flashpointNetzarim had long been a symbol and flashpoint for Israelis and Palestinians. Isolated and hard to defend, the enclave at times experienced daily Palestinian rifle and grenade fire. Settlers placed signs throughout Israel proclaiming, "It is at Netzarim that Israel will triumph."

In the first month of the Intifada, Netzarim junction was the site of an Israeli-Palestinian exchange of fire which claimed the life of 12-year-old Muhammed Dura, the central Palestinian icon of the uprising.

Netzarim was also seen as significant as a result of a public statement by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - prior to announcement of the disengagement plan - that "the fate of Netzarim will be the fate of Tel Aviv."

"We knew this day would come, but we will get over it and move on," said Netzarim Rabbi Eyal Vered of the evacuation. "We will win, but not with force. God forbid that blood will be spilled."

IDF Major General Dan Harel, overall military commander of the Gaza Strip pullout, indicated ahead of the evacuation that he believed it would proceed smoothly.

"Its brave residents have withstood years under the threat of terrorism, shoulder to shoulder with us. Both the residents of Netzarim and we have paid with lives in defending the settlement," Harel said in remarks broadcast Monday.

"I am acquainted with the people of Netzarim, they are excellent people, people with values, and I know that the evacuation will be dignified, in a manner which is worthy also of them."

Palestinians living near Netzarim said Monday they had been counting the hours to see the settlers go.

"They are very bad neighbors," said Saadi Helo, 44, a Palestinian farmer. "They turned our lives into nightmares. They occupied the land, leveled our farms, demolished our houses, killed our beloved and spared no effort to attack us."