Countdown over in Gaza Strip As Pullout Begins for Army, Activists

Israelis in the Gaza Strip have reached the point of no return. Israeli authorities blocked all access to the Gaza settlements at midnight Sunday, kicking off a 48-hour countdown to their evacuation.

“From this point on, people can leave, but no one can enter,” said army spokeswoman Brig. Gen. Miri Regev.

As troops sealed Kissufim, the main border crossing between Israel and Gaza,, inside the coastal strip hundreds of Palestinian Authority security forces took up positions outside settlements. The move, made in agreement with Israel, was billed as preventing the looting of Israeli property during the actual evacuations of the settlements, which were slated to begin Wednesday.

But the rare act of cooperation was no consolation to many Gaza settlers, for whom the Tisha B’Av fast day seemed more relevant than ever.

While thousands of religious Israelis chanted dirges at the Western Wall in memory of the First and Second Temples, razed by ancient enemies, their counterparts in Gaza said they felt like victims of a modern-day exile of Jews.

“Today is Tisha B’Av, a day of suffering, and it is very difficult that Jews will once more be expelled,” Hanna Pickar of the Shirat Hayam enclave told reporters.

She and her comrades at the hard-line seaside settlement vowed to resist evacuation passively, a call sounded elsewhere in Gaza.

Government figures show that more than half of the roughly 9,000 settlers slated for removal from Gaza and the northern West Bank have applied for state-funded compensation, signaling they will go quietly.

But the holdouts will be hard to budge, especially given the army chief’s revelation on Sunday that they have been reinforced by as many as 5,000 anti-withdrawal activists who slipped into Gaza in recent weeks.

Still, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz cautioned troops and police who carry out the evacuations not to see the mission in adversarial terms.

“We are not going into battle,” he said in a briefing. “It is important that everyone, to the last soldier, understands this. There is no war here. We just want to extend a hand to our brothers.”

Settler leaders rejected Halutz’s comments, saying there was no change in their plan to resist the looming evacuations. One farmer in the southern Gaza settlement of Rafiah Yam set fire to his home, warehouse and minibus, saying this was preferable to Palestinians getting hold of the property.

There were more words of consolation from an unexpected corner: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Speaking to Israel’s Channel Ten television, Abbas said all Palestinians are united in hoping for a quiet Israeli withdrawal from Gaza — although Hamas vowed over the weekend that it would resume attacks thereafter.

“We want for the settlers and the army to leave in peace and security, without any undue incidents,” Abbas said, adding that he does not want the settlers “to get into confrontations with the Israeli army. Just like I do not want the Israeli army to get into confrontations with us.”

Meanwhile, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres called Israel’s security forces a bulwark for democracy in the Jewish state. Peres’ comments came during a visit with soldiers and police in southern Israel on Sunday to boost their morale ahead of the withdrawal. “I came to say thank you in my name, as well as in the name of the fathers, mothers, and children of all of Israel,” he said. “The state of Israel is a Jewish democratic country, and loyalty to the country needs to be above all, without connection to personal stands.”

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