SHIRAT HAYAM, Gaza Strip — Israeli bulldozers flattened a row of abandoned buildings next to this seaside settlement Sunday, clashing with Jewish settlers in the first military operation aimed at hampering opponents to Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
In a taste of what could lie ahead, troops scuffled with the young settlers who taunted them, climbed on bulldozers and lay in front of one to try to prevent the demolitions.
One Israeli soldier was punished for siding with the settlers.
Israel plans to uproot all 8,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza, as well as about 500 residents of four small settlements in the West Bank, beginning in mid-August. Settlers strongly oppose the plan, and Israeli officials fear extremists among the opponents could turn violent.
Opponents of the pullout had planned on moving into the buildings, former Egyptian resort cottages abandoned after Israel captured Gaza 38 years ago, to reinforce resistance during the withdrawal. The demolished cottages are near a derelict beachfront hotel in Gaza where hundreds of opponents already have barricaded themselves.
Even as the withdrawal date nears, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has continued expanding West Bank settlements, drawing sharp criticism from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice , Israeli officials said Sunday.
Rice told Israel during her visit last week that Washington would not accept new West Bank construction, although Israeli officials present at the meeting with Rice said she did not threaten any particular penalty.
Discontent among troops
In the Gaza Strip, troops arriving to carry out the demolitions were confronted by several dozen young activists, most Orthodox Jews. “Jews don’t expel Jews,” the activists shouted at soldiers. Several settlers climbed onto a bulldozer, and a small group holed up under one vehicle to block its path.
The crowd scuffled with soldiers, who dragged several protesters away. The army said 10 Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers and police officers were injured, none seriously.
The army said 11 structures were demolished, and the beach was littered with concrete rubble after the operation. The army said the area would remain a closed military zone until the rubble is removed.
“The Israeli military strongly rejects violent behavior against its soldiers by extremist elements,” the army said in a statement.
During the operation, a soldier began shouting at his comrades and expressing opposition to the mission. The army said the soldier’s weapon was taken away, and he was escorted away.
“This is not justice,” the soldier, Avi Bieber, told reporters as he left. The army said later that the soldier refused a disciplinary hearing, demanding a court martial, and an officer would decide between the two.
Hannah Apickar, a Shirat Hayam resident, said Sunday’s scuffle was a sign of things to come.
“We don’t want a civil war; we’re against a civil war,” she told Channel 2 TV. “We haven’t been violent, but you have to understand that when we see something like this here, we shall oppose it. We shall not let the bulldozers reach our area.”
The government has offered compensation and new homes to uprooted settlers and on Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved additional concessions, including deeply discounted land in a prime coastal area not far from Gaza.
The army is preparing for the possibility of soldiers’ disobeying orders, civil disobedience and even armed resistance by settlers during the withdrawal. Israel also has said it will be ready for possible attacks by Palestinian militants.
Abbas promises cooperation
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said his security forces will ensure quiet from the Palestinian side during the pullout.
Sharon proposed the withdrawal more than a year ago as a step to improve Israeli security and beef up control over large blocs of settlements in the West Bank, where the vast majority of Israeli settlers live. The Palestinians claim all of Gaza and the West Bank for a future independent state.
Friction between the U.S. and Israel over settlement development has surfaced because of different readings of President Bush’s April 2004 letter that said a final peace settlement would have to take Israel’s main settlement blocs into account.
Israel has interpreted the document as a green light to build in its largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim and other established West Bank communities, and to expropriate Palestinian land in annexed east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim for their capital.
The U.S. maintains that any new construction violates the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which Washington hopes to revive after the Gaza pullout.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.