Unarmed soldiers on Wednesday broke through burning barricades and went door to door ordering people out of their homes in five settlements, while police grabbed protesters and pushed them onto waiting buses.

Confrontation loomed as forces fanned out in the largest enclave, Neve Dekalim, where hundreds of ultranationalist youths who slipped into the community of red-roofed homes in recent weeks, holed up in a synagogue for a possible last stand.

"I don't want to. I don't want to," one woman wept as four female soldiers, each grabbing a limb, carried her out of her home in Neve Dekalim. 
 
The operation, the culmination of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for the first removal of settlements from land Palestinians want for a state, began after a midnight deadline for Gaza settlers to leave or face eviction.

Sharon reviled

Sharon, once the settlers' champion but now reviled by them as a traitor, voiced sympathy for the evacuees but appealed to them not to attack troops.

Ariel Sharon in a TV address took
responsibility for the withdrawal

"I am responsible for this. Attack me," Sharon, who has billed his plan as "disengagment" from conflict with the Palestinians, said sombrely in a televised address.

In Neve Dekalim, soldiers retreated from a house where residents started shrieking and smashing glassware.

Some settlers scuffled with soldiers, and police said one woman was arrested for stabbing and lightly wounding a soldier. 

A 54-year-old woman opposed to the pullout set herself on fire at a roadblock near the southern town of Netivot, suffering life-threatening burns on 70% of her body, police and hospital officials said.

She had been at the roadblock since the morning, carrying an anti-Gaza pullout sign, said police spokeswoman Liat Nidam.

Paramedic Osnat Asulil said he asked the woman why she did it, and she responded that it was an act of protest.

Aljazeera correspondent Shirin Abu Aqla, who is in Neve Dekalimin, reported piles of garbage had been left in the streets for days. Fires were lit as barricades against police.  

Notice given

Protesters are being hauled
onto buses and taken away 

In the Morag settlement, troops accompanied by bulldozers made their way past makeshift barricades and marched in.

Smoke from tyre and rubbish fires billowed over the area.

Dozens of other settlers and their supporters left without a fight, some even tearfully hugging soldiers before filing onto buses waiting to ferry them across the border into Israel.

Seventeen-member squads have been training for the operation for weeks, practising scenarios that include violent resistance.

Government eviction notices went into effect on Monday, but settlers were given 48 hours to leave or be removed from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 enclaves in the West Bank.

Homes demolished

A Reuters photographer saw bulldozers move in and start demolishing buildings vacated by settlers in the northern Gaza settlement of Nissanit. 
 

Troops have moved in with bull-
dozers to demolish settler homes

Taking heed of warnings, many of Gaza's 8500 settlers packed up trucks ahead of the Wednesday deadline to quit the Gaza Strip, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, and joined an exodus ending Israel's 38-year occupation of the coastal area. 

But the army estimated that about half the settler population would remain in defiance.

Polls indicate that most Israelis back the pullout, but rightist opponents call it a reward to Palestinian violence and a betrayal of Israel's biblical birthright.

A hard core of 5000 pullout opponents reached Gaza settlements in recent weeks despite a military closure.

Palestinians cautious

From the roof of buildings in the nearby Palestinian town of Khan Yunus, residents watched gleefully as troops moved in.

Palestinians have begun
celebrations of the pullout

"I feel like I could fly, I am so happy," said Abu Ahmad, a father of 10 whose house was demolished by Israeli troops during a five-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Palestinians welcome withdrawal from any land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

They also fear Sharon devised the plan as a ruse to cement Israel's hold on most of the West Bank, where 230,000 settlers and 2.4 million Palestinians live.

Compensation

Israeli officials raised the prospect that the army could finish evacuation of settlers in two days, speeding an operation the military had said it hoped to complete by 4 September.

Four small Gaza settlements and two in the northern West Bank had evacuated on their own, ahead of the deadline.

But signs of defiance remained. In Kfar Darom, a hardline religious stronghold, many settlers vowed to stay.

Israeli soldiers trained for the
pullout weeks before

Officials say 66% of settler families have accepted compensation deals.

Those who refused to go could lose a third of the money, ranging from $150,000 to $400,000 a family.

The army intends to pull out the last troops from Gaza in early October and turn over the land to the Palestinian Authority.

The World Court describes Israel's settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.

Israel says the withdrawal will end its occupation of Gaza, but Palestinians say that can only happen once they gain full control of borders and airspace. Israel is reluctant to allow that for now, citing security reasons.