"Operation Brotherly Hand"

The Israeli army prepares to remove -- by cage or by sea -- Jewish settlers who flout the deadline to leave Gaza.

By Chris McGreal
August 15, 2005 6:17PM (UTC)
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For the most diehard Jewish settlers, the last view of their doomed homes on the Gaza coast is likely to be from a cage as it swings high over the uniform red roofs, whitewashed walls and neatly tended gardens to deliver them to Israel's security forces.

At midnight Monday, as the deadline passed for Israelis to leave the 17 condemned settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small ones in the northern West Bank, the government was still banking on most of the 8,000 settlers going quietly.


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has tried to lure them out with generous compensation packages far above the true value of the properties left behind and with appeals to consider the national good. But at the same time, the army has spent months planning for the unwelcome prospect of prying out those who intend to make a last stand in defense of Israel's most controversial colonies. Tens of thousands of soldiers and police have been trained to remove the settlers "with determination and sensitivity," riot control methods have been softened up from those used against Palestinians, and plans have been laid to move the last settlers by sea if all else fails.

So far, several hundred settlers have left Gaza, mostly from smaller communities, although many more are preparing to go. Starting Monday, soldiers and police officers will go from door to door to attempt to persuade the rest to leave.

Col. Erez Katz, the officer overseeing the pullout on the ground, said he believes a good proportion of families have chosen to stay beyond the deadline to register their defiance, but that many will load up their cars and drive away before the removal squads arrive, particularly those parents who do not wish to be arrested in front of their children. "They will have registered their protest by staying on after the deadline, and if they leave in [the next] 48 hours they will not lose any of the compensation," he said.


But a hardcore is expected to remain beyond Wednesday. In Gush Katif, the largest settlement block, local leaders say they will lock the gates to the settlements Monday morning and have called for a mass turnout to block roads to prevent what the army has named Operation Brotherly Hand from getting off the ground. It may also prevent some of those who want to leave from doing so.

The Gaza settlers who plan to hold out have been joined by several thousand supporters from Jewish colonies in the West Bank, or from Israel proper, many of them young people whose fervor has been sharpened by the closure deadline's coinciding with Tisha B'av, the most mournful day in the Jewish calendar, marking the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem.

The army has not said which settlement will be cleared first, but the approach will be the same in all. On the morning of the forced evacuation, the targeted settlement will be surrounded by six rings of security forces. The first will ensure that roads are kept open to allow in the second wave, assigned to clear the colony house by house. The remaining rings will protect the evacuation from Palestinian attack and seal off a wide area around the Gaza Strip to keep Israeli protesters at bay.


Each of the squads assigned to clear houses is made up of a combination of 17 soldiers and police officers. A policeman will knock on the door of each home, inform the residents that they are breaking the law and ask them to board a bus. They will be permitted a few minutes to gather belongings.

The approach, the army says, is to be understanding -- firm but kind, a side of the Israeli military rarely seen by Palestinians in the neighboring Khan Yunis or Rafah refugee camps, who are routinely ordered through the loudspeaker of an armored vehicle to get out of their home minutes before it is bulldozed.


"We will show all the sensitivity that a family forced to leave its home deserves," said Col Katz.

The squads have been practicing for weeks what will happen if the residents refuse to move. Adults will be pinned down, with one soldier or policeman on each limb, and lifted out. Only female soldiers and police officers will arrest women or carry children onto the bus.

The authorities believe the settlers have prepared several tactics to resist, such as retreating to one room, sitting on the floor and clinging tightly to each other. Others may barricade themselves in. If so, the squads will go through the windows or hammer their way through the walls.


Through all of this, the settlers are likely to appeal to the soldiers and police officers not to carry out their orders. "Jews don't evacuate Jews" is a common plea.

The removal squads will not be armed, and several of the settlements have responded to appeals from the military to hand in their weapons. At the first sight of a gun, the process will be halted and a special negotiating team brought in.

"Even though we simulated some extreme scenarios, we believe most settlers will not resort to violence. Some of them are even waiting for the soldiers with cakes and sweets," said Col Katz.


The army has developed an alternative to rubber bullets, which sometimes kill, by developing rounds using compressed sand that are not nearly so dangerous.

Although some smaller settlements, such as Kfar Darom, are generally the most militant, the hardest to clear may prove to be Neve Dekalim, the largest in Gaza. It is normally home to about 2,600 people, but the number may have doubled or trebled with an influx of evacuation opponents. Groups such as Land of Israel Loyalists have prepared for a long siege "against the expulsion and transfer plot" with stockpiles of food.

Some of the settlers and their supporters are expected to retreat to the roofs of their homes, or the top of the few multistory buildings, such as council offices and a large religious school in Neve Dekalim. The military considers it dangerous for both sides to have to drag resisters down stairs, so they will be forced into large yellow cages lowered onto the rooftops, locked in and swung into the arms of police waiting on the ground.

If the confrontation gets really difficult -- with the only road out of Gush Katif blocked by mass demonstrations -- the security forces have laid plans to move the settlers out by sea, using hovercraft and military landing craft.


There are other potential complications. Rocket attacks by Hamas or Islamic Jihad would probably bring the evacuation to a halt, particularly if a settler, soldier or police officer were killed. If that happens, the army has threatened to launch an offensive to seize control of Palestinian territory in Gaza, probably delaying the evacuation by days.

Once the settlers have gone, the dead will follow. Col. Katz said that under religious law, the 48 people buried in the local graveyard can only be disinterred and moved after the living have left.

The contents of homes will be locked in containers and shipped to a location in the Negev Desert for collection. Squads will move in to dismantle the parts of the houses that can be removed, such as water tanks and solar panels, and remove the asbestos found in many of the homes. Diggers will cave in the roof of each home to make it uninhabitable, but the bulk of the destruction and removal of the rubble will be left to the Palestinians, who are keen to use it to provide work.

Synagogues, religious schools and other sensitive buildings will be dismantled as far as possible -- with roofs, door frames and windows removed. Other public buildings, such as administration offices, will be left for the Palestinians.


When the settlers are finally gone, along with the last of the bulldozers, the remaining soldiers will gather beneath the Israeli flag. The national anthem will be played, the Star of David will be lowered and the Israelis will leave Gaza after a presence that some never imagined would go on so long, and others thought would go on forever.

Chris McGreal

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