At a desert military base, thousands of police and soldiers practiced removing Jewish settlers from their homes Tuesday in the biggest dress rehearsal yet for next month’s Gaza withdrawal.
Tensions rose as the crucial date neared for Israel’s first-ever evacuation of veteran settlements from Gaza and the West Bank. Jewish extremists held an ancient curse ceremony to call for the death of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and the military tightened restrictions on entering Gaza to keep more pullout opponents from infiltrating.
Also, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel will leave the Gaza-Egypt border road at the end of the pullout, Israel TV reported. Israel, which holds the road to prevent arms smuggling, said it would turn patrolling over to Egypt, but no date was set.
Responding to the report, Israeli defense officials said no agreement has been signed with Egypt.
At the dusty Zeelim army training base in the steaming Negev desert, Israeli troops dragged fellow soldiers playing the role of settlers out of houses in a mock Arab village — once used for urban warfare drills against Palestinian militants — and bundled them into buses.
Another drill in August
About 5,000 security forces are training at Zeelim this week, with another 7,000 going next week. In August, another drill will be held at an Israeli communal farm that more closely resembles a Gaza settlement.
Paramilitary police lined the open second floor of a cinderblock building as other troops stormed inside, hauling the “settlers” out in a matter of minutes.
Four police or soldiers were assigned to each “settler.” Carrying them by arms and legs, the troops hustled them out to buses as circles of soldiers ringed the buses and the buildings to keep settlers and other pullout opponents from sneaking back in.
Commanders said about 50,000 police and soldiers will participate in the removal of 9,000 settlers — 8,500 in Gaza and 500 in four small settlements in the northern West Bank. The evacuation will start Aug. 17 and last about three weeks, although it could be held up by violence either from settlers or Palestinians.
Entrance to Gaza restricted
The military on Tuesday restricted entrance to the Gaza settlements to residents and close relatives. Two weeks ago, the government banned most nonresidents from entering, but about 2,000 pullout opponents have sneaked into the territory since then, many as passengers in settlers’ cars.
Security forces will be deployed in several circles, with about 14,000 police and soldiers directly involved in removing settlers. The remainder will protect front-line forces from possible Palestinian fire and secure the access roads to Gaza, where anti-pullout demonstrators are expected to stage rallies.
Each settler family will be evacuated by a 17-member force, the police commander of the operation, Haggai Dotan, said at the start of Tuesday’s drill.
“We will come early in the mornings to introduce ourselves, not say why we are there, but rather how we are going to carry out the evacuation,” he said.
Settlers who climb onto rooftops will be dragged into cargo containers dangling from cranes, military officials said. Once a house has been emptied, the settlers’ belongings will be packed into boxes and removed by private companies.
“This is very sensitive for us, and a very different mission from what we have previously trained for,” said Maj. Gen. Yiftah Rontal, the commander of the army’s ground forces.
Part of the training is psychological: training troops to deal with fellow Israelis, commanders said.
“It’s not a mission against an enemy,” army spokesman Ishai David said. “In essence, we are dealing with our brothers and sisters.”
Extremist opponents might be arrested before the pullout, the head of the Shin-Bet security service told lawmakers Tuesday. The Haaretz daily newspaper said Yuval Diskin warned that extremists from the West Bank might turn violent.
A call for Sharon's death
On Tuesday, well-known Jewish extremist Michael Ben Chorin said he and about 20 others carried out an ancient curse ceremony called “pulsa denura,” calling death down upon Sharon, author of the pullout plan. The mystical ceremony was conducted in a cemetery in Israel’s north, he said.
“We called on angels of destruction to kill Sharon as soon as possible,” he told Israel Radio.
Such a ceremony preceded the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a fanatical opponent of concessions to the Palestinians. The assassin was influenced by hard-line rabbis and extreme religious pronouncements.
The mainstream settlers council, Israel’s chief rabbi and pro-peace groups condemned Ben Chorin and the ceremony.