Israel says no evidence soldiers kidnapped in West Bank
Israeli forces on Thursday stormed a Gaza Strip settlers’ hotel where dozens of Jewish extremists holed up, preparing to disrupt this summer’s Israeli withdrawal, in a quick operation that could serve as a blueprint for the pullout itself.
Struggling and shouting as soldiers lifted them from the floor of the hotel’s dining room and carried them outside, the extremists quickly surrendered to the overwhelming numbers of security forces.
“You’re expelling Jews like the Germans, like the Russians,” shouted media-wise West Bank hardliner Nadia Matar at the soldiers, who ignored her as TV cameras recorded her words.
The extremists, including well-known West Bank figures repeatedly arrested in the past for harassing Palestinians and soldiers alike, had declared they would never be taken out alive, but the evacuation took only a few minutes and no shots were fired. Police with clubs hauled the protesters out, as armed soldiers ringed the compound.
The necessity of dragging Israelis away from a Gaza strongpoint was a key test of Israel’s ability to rein in its own extremists after pressuring the Palestinians for months to do the same with their factions.
Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz called the Jewish extremists “hooligans” and added: “Preparations for disengagement and the disengagement itself will go ahead as planned with no hesitation. This is a test of the nation’s authority, and the nation will pass the test with honour.” He was speaking Thursday at an air force ceremony.
The extremists had welded bars on the windows and laid in supplies of food, water and gasoline, preparing firebombs and nails. But the military blocked reinforcements from arriving by declaring all of Gaza a “closed military zone,” banning all civilians except for residents from entering, and the squatters said they decided not to resist.
The military absorbed criticism from local media for delaying the expulsion until a day after some of the extremists clashed with soldiers and Palestinians in a nearby neighbourhood. A Palestinian was seriously wounded when a rock hit him in the head, and young Jews threw more rocks at him as he lay unconscious on the ground with an Israeli soldier trying to protect him.
“I’m glad we succeeded in expelling that whole gang from here,” said the area military commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel. “We expected harsher resistance, and I’m glad to be able to sum up and say there were no casualties,” he told Army Radio.
He said the operation could be a model for the pullout itself, when soldiers and police are to remove 8,500 settlers from all 21 Gaza settlements. Referring to the hotel raid as a kind of rehearsal, Harel said, “The procedures agreed on with the police, which we have been drilling for six months, worked well.” At nightfall, the abandoned seaside hotel and grounds looked like a battlefield after a retreat. Smoke rose from smouldering tires and trash cans, and soldiers wandered around. The military set up a table to pass out refreshments to the forces left behind to guard the site.
Near Jerusalem, meanwhile, pullout opponents briefly blocked a highway for the second day in a row.
Speaking at an economic conference in Jerusalem Thursday evening, Sharon denounced the extremists. “Hooliganism …is not the way of Judaism,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to raise a hand against an Israeli soldier or police officer.” Sharon presented his plan to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank, uprooting 9,000 settlers, as a unilateral move to improve Israel’s security and fend off international peace initiatives that would likely call for further Israeli concessions.
Israel has moved to coordinate the pullout with Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, hoping for a smooth transfer of power while sidelining the powerful Islamic Hamas movement. Palestinians complain that Israel has not given them enough information to allow proper coordination, but meetings continue.
Palestinians are uncomfortable with Sharon’s plan. They complain that even after the pullout, Israel would maintain control of crossing points. Also, Sharon has said one object is to strengthen Israel’s hold on its main West Bank settlement blocs. Palestinians demand removal of all the settlements.
Settlers and their backers oppose the pullout on several grounds. Despite Sharon’s denials, they believe that one withdrawal will inevitably be followed by others, and Orthodox Jews, who make up the majority of the most visible opponents, say no Israeli government has the right to relinquish control of parts of the God-given Promised Land.
Israel’s Cabinet and parliament have approved the plan several times, though Sharon had to reshuffle his government to expel hardliners and build a majority in the face of stiff opposition from his own party.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Thursday that it had no evidence to substantiate claims that two of its soldiers had been kidnapped by Palestinian fighters in the northern West Bank.
Having earlier refused to comment on the claims, the Israeli military confirmed that it had been investigating the possibility that two soldiers had been abducted in the Nablus region.
Although investigations into the claims were continuing, there had so far nothing to substantiate them, a spokeswoman told AFP.
“Earlier this afternoon unidentifiable sources spread word regarding the possibility that two IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) soldiers had been abducted,” she said.
“Following inquiries into the matter, at this stage the IDF cannot provide any confirmation or verification of this information.”
A spokesman for the Palestinian ministry also denied that any soldiers had been kidnapped or were missing in the Nablus region.
An anonymous caller who claimed to be speaking on behalf of two Palestinian factions had earlier said that two Israeli soldiers had been killed after being kidnapped in the main northern West Bank city.
“We have killed the two soldiers we kidnapped in Nablus,” said the spokesman, who claimed to be speaking for a cell from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and one from the armed wing of Islamic Jihad.
After rumours of the abductions began spreading, the Israeli army staged an incursion into the centre of Nablus.
Eight jeeps took part in the operation during which troops opened fire towards a group of youths who had been throwing stones, witnesses said. There were no reports of casualties.
The Israeli army has largely held back from entering Palestinian cities since a de facto truce came into force at the start of the year.