An estimated 5000 troops and police were bracing themselves for a violent showdown on Tuesday in what is the first ever expulsion of Israelis from part of land regarded by Jews as northern Samaria, the heart of biblical Israel.

Police said they believed those inside the two settlements of Sanur and Homesh had massed an arsenal of stones, sharp metal projectiles, knives, stun grenades, oil to pour on the road and possibly pistols.

After sunrise on Tuesday, border police burst through burning barricades and cut through rolls of barbed wire at the entrance to Homesh before pushing into the enclave.

In neighbouring Sanur, hundreds of police and soldiers cut through the barbed wire perimeter fence before a bulldozer smashed through the metal gate and troops began putting out barricades torched by a gang of masked youths.

Troops stormed their way into a barricaded synagogue and an old fortress as they evacuated defiant settlers.

Flag set alight

The Israeli flag was set alight by protesters holed up in the settlements of Sanur and Homesh to express their disgust at their one-time champion Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Two shipping containers carrying riot troops hovered above the rooftop of an old British fortress where dozens of opponents to a partial West Bank pullout were holed up on Tuesday.

Homes were bulldozed after
settlers were evacuated

A rabbi rode up with the troops in one of the containers and pleaded with the protesters to leave the roof without resistance. "We don't want to talk to anyone," one young man shouted back.

Extremists held up sticks to prevent the shipping containers, hoisted in the air by cranes, from landing on the roof.
The West Bank episode threatened to be the toughest, ugliest and most dangerous phase. Even before the soldiers moved in, there were violent incidents.

Around midnight, troops stopped 500 settlers from nearby Kedumim from entering the closed area, the military said.

When police loaded protesters on a bus and sent them back to Kedumim, teenage girls surrounded the vehicle and punctured its tires. When the settlers got off, a girl set the bus on fire - the second such case of arson in as many days.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas telephoned Israeli President Moshe Katsav on Tuesday to offer his congratulations for the smooth completion of the operation to evict Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Telephone talk

The call to Katsav followed a similar conversation between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday after the last Jewish settlers were taken out of the territory after a 38-year occupation.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP Abbas had told both Katsav and Sharon that he was ready to meet with them.

This is the first time Israel - under the right-wing government of Sharon - has removed Jews from Palestinian land after 38 years of often bloody military occupation.

Yossi Dagan, a spokesman for the settlers in Sanur, had warned of "bloodshed" during Tuesday's operation.

Scenes of  homes being razed
have shocked some Israelis

"Soldiers are going to use a lot of violence," he predicted, accusing Sharon of waging a hate campaign against the West Bank settlers.

"It's difficult justifying the evacuation of these settlements, so he tries to make us monsters.

"We are optimistic this evacuation can be stopped."

Police spokesman Shai Itzkovitch said between 600 and 1000 people could now be inside Sanur, which was originally home to just 150.

"We are ready to deal with them and we are negotiating with them so that the withdrawal can be completed peacefully and quietly. If they have pistols, we are negotiating for them to give them up, but we are ready for all eventualities."

Anti-Sharon graffiti

In Homesh, youths had prepared for the arrival of the soldiers by blocking front doors of already empty homes with rubble and stacking up piles of broken tiles on balconies to use as ammunition.

Graffiti covered the walls. "Sharon is a traitor," read one slogan, while another proclaimed: "A Jew does not expel a Jew."

"It's difficult justifying the evacuation of these settlements, so [Sharon] tries to make us monsters"

Yossi Dagan,
Settlers' spokesman in Sanur, West Bank

Such taunts were heard frequently during the evacuation operation in the Gaza Strip where violence was restricted to only a handful of settlements.

The Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, challenging Abbas's Fatah movement for the first time in legislative elections next January, has been portraying the pullout as an act of surrender.

Its supporters staged a mass rally on Monday night in Gaza City to celebrate seeing the back of the last settlers in their stronghold, and vowing to continue their resistance.

"Hamas will continue to follow its strategic path, to continue our resistance to liberate all the land," one Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, told a 10,000-strong crowd.

Deal reached

For his part, secretary-general of the Islamic Jihad movement Ramadan Abd Allah Shallah said on Monday an agreement had been reached between leaders of Palestinian factions living in Damascus and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia to adopt a unified strategy over post-pullout Gaza, according to Aljazeera.

The strategy would be based on preserving Palestinian resistance arms, Shallah said.

TV journalist Mohamed Ouathi
surfaced on Monday in Gaza

Deputy bureau chief of Hamas, Musa Abu Marzuq, reaffirmed that the movement would take part in the forthcoming legislative elections and would accept the Palestinian people's choice through the election process.

Also on Monday, a French television journalist kidnapped at gunpoint more than a week ago, was freed.

Mohamed Ouathi, 46, walked into a police station in Gaza, eight days after he was seized by three armed men who forced him into a car as he walked to his hotel.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnapping and no apparent motive.

Ouathi had worked at the station France-3 since 1994.

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press watchdog group, noted that the kidnappers wore no blindfolds and said that showed "that a certain climate of impunity" reigns in Gaza.