INTERNATIONAL

Israel clears settler stronghold

Police take away protesters in violence-free operation

GADID (GAZA STRIP): Israeli forces burst through burning barricades at the entrance of this Jewish settlement early on Friday and quickly removed dozens of Gaza pullout opponents, avoiding a repeat of previous day's violence in which youths pelted soldiers with acid, oil and sand.

The quick evacuation of Gadid, one of the last strongholds of anti-pullout protests, was the latest sign of progress as Israel pushes forward with its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

All but four of Gaza's 21 settlements have been cleared out, and Israel's commander for the region, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said the remainder could be emptied by next Tuesday — weeks ahead of schedule.

Palestinian celebration

In the Palestinian town of Rafah, hundreds of Palestinians gathered in the sand outside the gate of an abandoned Jewish settlement to offer Friday prayers of thanks.

Many wore T-shirts with the Palestinian flag and the slogan: ``Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem.''

The celebration, organised by the ruling Fatah movement, was held at a sandy border area that was the site of fierce fighting during the Palestinian uprising in recent years.

``We won so we came to thank God for our victory,'' said Abdel Raouf Barbar, a Fatah official. With parliamentary elections scheduled for January, the party is competing with the Islamic group Hamas to claim credit for the Israeli withdrawal.

In the settlement outpost of Kerem Atzmona, Israeli bulldozers crushed several empty trailer homes, the first home demolitions since the withdrawal began. Israel plans demolishing all homes in the abandoned settlements, removing hazardous waste and turning over other rubble to the Palestinians for construction projects.

The lone mission to clear out Gadid began at sunrise. A few holdout families, along with 60 hardline ``reinforcements'' from outside Gaza, were in the community when the troops entered.

In what has become a familiar scene this week, settlers set two cars, wooden planks, and garbage bins on fire, sending a thick plume of black smoke into the air.

A military bulldozer cleared debris, and troops quickly fanned throughout the settlement.

Police enter synagogue

Most of the protesters holed up in the settlement's synagogue, where they were permitted to hold morning prayers. After negotiations with police, the protesters agreed not to resist with force. Police moved into the building and carried the protesters away into waiting buses.

Troops also rounded up holdouts who climbed on the roofs of homes and shouted insults. One female protester slipped off a roof, suffering light to moderate injuries, the army said.

The scene in Gadid was a sharp contrast to the fierce standoffs on Thursday between troops and young protesters in the Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom settlements.

At least 41 police and soldiers and 17 civilians were injured, and about 50 people were arrested. — AP

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