Israel Winding Down Gaza Withdrawal

Israel is completing the pullout of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Only one small settlement remains to be evacuated, and settlers there agreed to go peacefully. Several settlements in the West Bank will be dismantled as well, but protesters there might make that operation more difficult.

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Israel today is completing the pullout of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Only one small settlement was left to evacuate and settlers there agreed to go peacefully. Several settlements in the West Bank will be dismantled as well, and that may not be as easy, as NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

The last Jewish settlement in Gaza is Netzarim, a community of 400 people not far from Gaza City. It is an isolated settlement. Some hard-liners live there, but the Israeli army has been in long negotiations with the settlers of Netzarim. So when the pullout began this morning, there was little resistance.

The evacuation of Netzarim followed the smooth pullout from several settlements on Sunday. So with the exception of the one battle on the roof of the synagogue at Kfar Darom last week, the removal from Gaza of 9,000 settlers and another 1,500 resisters has been carried out far more easily than most Israelis dreamed possible. For Gerald Steinberg, director of the Conflict Management Program at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, this has been an unexpected success.

Mr. GERALD STEINBERG (Director, Conflict Management Program, Bar-Ilan University): The divisions that came out of this process were actually less strong than many of us had expected. It's not over yet and we'll have to see how things develop the next few months. But there was a sense that this was what, as a nation, Israel decided to do, and although there was a lot of controversy, and those controversies will continue, it was managed disagreement.

SHUSTER: Even some of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's greatest detractors have been forced to utter words of praise for the Gaza pullout. Former opposition Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a well-known critic of Sharon's, acknowledged how well the disengagement from Gaza has gone.

Mr. YOSSI BEILIN (Former Opposition Justice Minister, Israel): Unlike some of my best friends, I did not anticipate that there will be a kind of a civil war or bloodshed, God forbid. Now everybody understands that it is not impossible; that dismantling settlements are a possibility in the West Bank as they are possible in the Gaza Strip. And from that point of view, the precedent was very important.

SHUSTER: Indeed, now attention turns to the West Bank where four isolated settlements will be dismantled, possibly beginning tomorrow. Two are almost empty, but several thousand settlers and resisters are known to be inside two others, Sanur and Homesh. There are reports they have stockpiled weapons. They have surrounded buildings with razor wire, and yesterday some of these ultra-nationalists skirmished with police nearby and slashed the tires of military vehicles in an effort to interfere with the establishment of a staging area for troops.

Prime Minister Sharon told troops yesterday that once this operation is completed there will be no second disengagement, meaning no further unilateral withdrawal from the wider West Bank. Sharon wants a commitment from the Palestinians to disarm militant groups and return to internationally sponsored negotiations.

Despite the success of the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon's future as Israel's leader is already in doubt. He is fighting attacks on his right from those who oppose the Gaza operation, and now Yossi Beilin says he and other opposition figures in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, are going to try to pull Sharon down.

Mr. BEILIN: We gave a kind of a safety net to Sharon's government in order to implement the withdrawal from Gaza, but we did not promise anything more than that and we did not get anything for our support. So obviously, once the withdrawal is over, we will try to either topple the government by a no-confidence vote or by having a bill on early elections. And I hope that there will be a majority in the Knesset for such a bill.

SHUSTER: In Gaza, Israeli bulldozers have begun tearing down homes and other buildings. It will take another month of demolition before Israel turns what was for 35 years the Jewish settlements in Gaza over to the Palestinians. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Kissufim, outside of Gaza.

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