14,000 Troops Evict Settlers in Gaza

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- Thousands of Israeli troops dragged sobbing Jewish settlers out of homes, synagogues and even a nursery school on Wednesday and hauled them onto buses in a mass evacuation, fulfilling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's promise to withdraw from the Gaza Strip after a 38-year occupation.

Throughout the day, some 14,000 troops entered six Jewish settlements -- Morag, Neve Dekalim, Bedolah, Ganei Tal, Tel Katifa and Kerem Atzmona. By evening, all but Neve Dekalim were emptied, military officials said.

In the West Bank, an Israeli settler killed three Palestinians and wounded two others in a shooting spree that aroused fears of Palestinian retaliation and the disruption of the evacuation mission, which has gone largely without serious violence.

The gunman was identified as Asher Weisgan, 40, a driver who transported Palestinian laborers to work daily. Weisgan seized a gun from a security guard at knifepoint, then shot two Palestinian laborers in his car, media reports said. He then continued shooting randomly, killing one more Palestinian and wounding two. Police captured and arrested him, said the reports.

In Gaza, women in a synagogue pressed their faces against the curtain covering the Torah scroll. Wailing men ripped their shirts in a Jewish mourning ritual. Unarmed soldiers carried away worshippers still wrapped in their white prayer shawls.

One 54-year-old woman from the West Bank set herself on fire at a police roadblock in southern Israel to protest the pullout, suffering life-threatening burns on 70 percent of her body, police and hospital officials said.

Dozens of soldiers entered a Gaza yeshiva, or seminary, in Neve Dekalim, where settlers linked arms in a wide circle and swayed in prayer. Soldiers formed a ring around the worshippers to wait for the end of the prayers, and some of the troops, still wearing their flak jackets, joined them in worship. Another 1,000 resisters were holding out in the settlement's synagogue.

Irate residents in Kerem Atzmona employed Nazi-era imagery -- including stars of David on their T-shirts -- to protest the military's actions. As soldiers arrived, settlers shouted at them: "Nazi!" and "Jews don't expel Jews."

But there were no signs of serious violence in the settlements as a growing flood of residents appeared to be coming to terms with the withdrawal.

"I believed that God would not let this happen, but this is not true," said a woman in the isolated settlement of Morag, clutching her baby.

The operation capped a bruising political battle for Sharon, who proposed the withdrawal more than 18 months ago as a way to reduce friction with the Palestinians. Opponents accuse him of caving in to Palestinian violence and abandoning the dream of full control over the biblical land of Israel.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas urged restraint as the Israelis withdraw. "We should let them go peacefully in order not to give them any reason to delay the evacuation," he told Islamic preachers in his Gaza office. Once Gaza is cleared of civilians, it will take troops about a month to dismantle military installations and relinquish the coastal strip to Palestinian control.