Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Israel's withdrawal from all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four isolated communities in the northern West Bank will improve Israel's security by reducing friction with the Palestinians and consolidate Israel's grip on main West Bank settlement blocs, where most of its 240,000 settlers live.

The pullout represents the first time Israel has abandoned territory the Palestinians claim for their future state.

About 10,000 troops were mobilised to overwhelm the last stand on Tuesday against the pullout in Sanur and Homesh, which was staged largely by 1600 Israelis who didn't live there, some of them West Bank youths known for their extremism and rejection of the Israeli government's authority.
 
Security officials' fears of violence in Sanur and Homesh didn't materialise, and the military declared the evacuation of the two settlements over nine hours after troops stormed them.

Gaza withdrawal

But there was more force and few of the scenes of personal pain that had taken centre stage in the evacuation of Gaza in the preceding week.
 
Hundreds of settlers holed up inside an old British fortress in Sanur where most of the settlement's resisters had barricaded themselves.

Hundreds of settlers had holed up
inside an old fortress in Sanur

Troops carrying shields and wearing helmets sawed open the building's iron doors to bring out resisters, some with legs and arms thrashing, from the ground floor of the building as dozens of residents danced on the rooftop.
 
Some of the rooftop resisters wore orange stars of David on their shirts, reminiscent of the yellow stars Nazis forced Jews to wear. Their defiance was broken after cranes hoisted two metal containers carrying SWAT troops onto the roof of the building.

Quick sweep

Forces herded the dozens of rooftop holdouts inside the containers within a minute, and with that sweep, police declared the evacuation of Sanur over.

Earlier on Tuesday, the main synagogue at Sanur was evacuated less than an hour after forces sawed open a barricade of iron bars at the synagogue's gates and stormed inside to bring out about 30 people, most of them youths who left quietly.

Troops who broke into a religious seminary in the settlement quickly carried out the 30 black-garbed ultra-Orthodox men holed up inside.

The toughest resistance in Homesh came at a religious seminary, where troops protected by shields used wirecutters to cut lengths of concertina wire that resisters had placed around the roof's perimeter.

No struggle

Troops threw off the roof furniture, a bed frame and a water heater placed as a barricade. Resisters on the roof locked arms but did not struggle when prodded onto the shovel of a bulldozer that lowered them to the ground. Troops with riot shields pinned them down inside the shovel to keep them subdued.

Israeli police stormed the roof of
a house to remove protesters

They then sawed through the window bars and main ground-floor gate of the building to carry out other protesters, who lay on the floor, arms locked, offering prayers and songs of praise to God.

By late afternoon, security officials declared the seminary cleared. While the seminary was being emptied, riot police stormed onto the roof of a house to remove a group who had barricaded themselves behind coils of barbed wire and hurled eggs, tomatoes, cans of food and dirty liquid at police who held up shields to block the barrage.

Troops, who had aimed water hoses at the protesters to gain access to the house, encountered no signs of resistance once they climbed onto the roof.
 
Religious spectrum

Children of all ages roamed the streets of Homesh and Sanur, enlisted by their parents in what they view as an apocalyptic battle.

In Homesh, a baby wailed in the arms of a policewoman who carried the child onto a bus whisking the evacuees away. In Sanur, a rescue worker was wet-eyed as he carried a baby out of one of the homes.

Security forces had said they expected the evacuation of Sanur and Homesh to be the most violent phase of the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements.

But defiance to the generally unarmed troops was less than expected, Israel's military chief, Leiutenant General Dan Halutz, said. Major General Yair Naveh, the West Bank commander, said rabbis took control of various groups that might have otherwise offered stiffer defiance.
 
Militants weapons

Israeli bulldozers demolish
vacated settler houses

Before the operation, police had said militants in both strongholds had hoarded firebombs and stun grenades. They also said two army deserters with army-issue weapons were believed to be inside Homesh.

Residents of the other two West Bank settlements slated for removal, Ganim and Kadim, had already left on their own.

Military bulldozers on Tuesday knocked down all the structures in Kadim, and were razing buildings in Ganim - the first demolitions in a West Bank settlement.

The showdown between troops and Jewish pullout opponents in Sanur and Homesh came just hours after Israel wound up its evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza. The entire operation, which had been scheduled to take four weeks, was over in just one.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Sharon late on Monday to praise him for a "brave and historic decision". Abbas suggested renewing negotiations, telling Sharon, "We are your partner for peace."

Future talks

The two agreed to meet soon, officials from both sides said. Abbas called Israeli President Moshe Katzav on Tuesday to praise the withdrawal, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

US President George Bush said the pullout has cleared the way for the resumption of peacemaking. "In the heart of the Middle East a hopeful story is unfolding," Bush said on Monday.

Tsali Reshef, a leader of the anti-settlement Peace Now group, said for many years, settlement opponents had been afraid that settlers were powerful enough to block any pullout.

The evacuation raises "hope is that the state of Israel is regaining its sanity," he said. The resisters who faced off against troops in Sanur and Homesh saw the pullout as a dangerous precedent that threatens all Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which the devout see as their God-given right.

Celebrations

"After [the settlers] are removed we will distribute sweets and show happiness, we will go out into the streets to celebrate"

Subhi Alawneh,
Palestinian farmer

Subhi Alawneh, a 58-year-old farmer from the nearby Palestinian village of Jaba, said Tuesday "is a day of celebration" for the more than 40,000 Palestinians who live near Sanur.

In another village, residents watched the evacuations with binoculars and handed out sweets.

"We were afraid of them all the time," Alawneh said, referring to the settlers. "After they are removed we will distribute sweets and show happiness, we will go out into the streets to celebrate."

In one of the few instances of Palestinian fire since the evacuations began, fighters shot at Israeli troops patrolling an area a few kilometers from Sanur and Homesh on Tuesday.

Peace process

One fighter was moderately wounded in the ensuing gunbattle, Israeli and Palestinian security officials said.

The past five years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed have put the Mideast peace process into a deep freeze, with Israel continuing to build in West Bank settlements and Palestinians failing to curb resistance attacks on Israelis - both requirements of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

Sharon has insisted that Israel will hold onto the major West Bank settlement blocs where most Jewish settlers live under any final peace deal.
 
Israel is giving up four isolated West Bank settlements, which aren't connected to any large settlement bloc, "to show our seriousness and willingness to reach a comprehensive agreement" with the Palestinians, said Ranaan Gissin, a senior Sharon adviser.