Last settlers leave Gaza

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — The last Jewish settlers were evacuated yesterday from the Gaza Strip as attention shifted to four small settlements in the northern West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, talked of creating a “culture of peace,” while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to continue building in the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Israel said it completed the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip on Monday.

“Except for two families now in [the settlement of] Netzarim, and who will be evacuated imminently, we have today completed the evacuation of the Israeli (settler) presence in the Gaza Strip,” Major-General Dan Harel said in Netzarim.

Harel declared the “first stage of the disengagement plan,” the removal of settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip, “complete.” The withdrawal was two weeks ahead of schedule.

Harel, however, also said it would take several weeks before the Israeli army dismantles its bases and hands over the territory to the Palestinians. Until that time, he said “we don’t plan on allowing any Palestinians into the area.”

Soon after Israel announced it had finished evacuating all Jewish settlements in Gaza, US President George W. Bush welcomed Israel’s withdrawal as a historic step that, he said, would help the effort towards peace in the Middle East.

“In the heart of the Middle East, a hopeful story is unfolding,” Bush said, addressing military veterans in Salt Lake City. “Peace is within reach in the Holy Land.”

Attention now shifts to the West Bank, where radicals opposed to ceding settlements dug in for a last stand at two enclaves that are due to be removed on Tuesday.

At the small settlements of Sa-Nur and Homesh numbers are swollen by hundreds of youths from the most radical outposts.

Withdrawal opponents hope to make those evacuations so difficult it will be much harder to consider giving up more settlements in the West Bank — to which Israelis see a much stronger biblical claim than to Gaza.

In an interview with an Israeli daily newspaper, Sharon stressed yesterday that there would be no more unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, where Israel aims to keep major settlements. Instead, he vowed, “there will be building in the settlement blocs,” according to The Jerusalem Post. “I will build.”

Sharon says further withdrawals will only come through talks with the Palestinians, which in turn depend on armed Palestinian groups being disarmed under the Quartet’s roadmap plan for peace. Israel has itself failed to meet its own roadmap commitment to freeze settlement building.

Some 230,000 settlers live in 120 settlements in the West Bank among 2.4 million Palestinians. Settlements in occupied territory are illegal according to international law.

In an interview with Reuters yesterday, Abbas said peaceful dialogue was the way to statehood for Palestinians.

Declaring the “jihad” of confrontation with Israel over, Abbas told Reuters it was time for what he called the “greater jihad” of economic revival, rule of law and talks with Israel to achieve a lasting peace.

“I was and I am working on planting the culture of peace among the Palestinian people in order to pave the way for a smooth Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and to move on from there to open negotiations with Israel on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza,” Abbas said.

But he added: “Israel is not helping. It is still taking unilateral steps and trying to create facts on the ground.”

In other developments, a French television sound technician who was kidnapped in the Gaza Strip over a week ago was released unharmed.

Mohammed Ouathi, a French national of Algerian origin, was abducted by armed men outside his hotel in Gaza City on August 14.

His kidnapping was the latest in a series of abductions in Gaza in recent weeks and came just three days after Abbas ordered security services to protect foreign workers in the Gaza Strip.

The United Nations decided earlier this month to indefinitely withdraw its non-essential staff from Gaza after five of its workers were kidnapped in Gaza in recent weeks. All those kidnap victims had been released unharmed within hours.

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