“This is the final closing of the Kissufim road into Gaza. From this moment on, all entrance and stay in Gaza is prohibited for Israelis by law,” army spokeswoman Major Sharon Feingold said after Sunday midnight.
“Tomorrow morning from very early the plan is to go into Gaza and ask them (the settlers) to kindly come with us,” she added.
The 8000-9000 Jewish settlers who have made Gaza their home have a 48-hour grace period to leave before Israeli police and soldiers begin to forcibly evacuate all 21 settlements in the Palestinian territory on Wednesday.
Eviction notices to all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 in the West Bank went into effect at midnight (2100 GMT Sunday), setting the clock ticking on a 48-hour grace period to cross into Israel.
Israeli soldiers and police were to begin deploying at daybreak on Monday to distribute eviction notices to settlers in Gaza, the military said in a statement.
It added that the orders would require settlers to “evacuate their homes and all areas designated for evacuation”.
But Israel’s military early on Monday cancelled an operation to deliver by hand eviction notices to individual homes in six Gaza settlements, saying it wanted to respect the wishes of the settlers there.
“This is the final closing of the Kissufim road into Gaza. From this moment on, all entrance and stay in Gaza is prohibited for Israelis by law”
Major Sharon Feingold,
Military spokeswoman Feingold said the settlers at the six locations preferred to receive the notices in the mail.
Settlers at several of the settlements planned to block the entrances to prevent soldiers from entering with the notices.
Notices were to be distributed to the other 15 Gaza colonies on Monday morning as planned, said Feingold.
Israel is also to dismantle another four enclaves in the northern West Bank before recalling all its soldiers from Gaza by early October, drawing a line under a 38-year occupation.
The Israeli army sealed off access to the Gaza colonies and an army convoy rolled into the Gaza Strip on Monday at the start of the operation which is expected to last several weeks.
Hundreds of Gaza settlers have
About 50 vehicles, including jeeps, ambulances and buses carrying police and soldiers, streamed into the Gaza Strip, where troops planned to enter settlements later in the day to inform settlers they had until Wednesday to leave or be forcibly removed.
Troops closed the Kissufim border crossing – the only active entrance to Gaza since Israel imposed a partial military closure on the territory weeks ago – to ward off rightists from infiltrating to try and help the settlers resist the evacuation.
“Stop. Entry into the Gaza Strip and presence there is forbidden by law! August 15, 2005,” read a sign the military posted on a gate at the crossing.
Hundreds of Gaza settlers have signed state compensation deals to leave the territory ahead of the 17 August deadline, but the army said about 5000 opponents of the pullout have slipped into the enclaves to boost resistance to the withdrawal.
The World Court views Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, occupied territories where 3.8 million Palestinians live, as illegal. Israel disputes this and many settlers claim the territories as their biblical birthright.
Palestinians welcome the withdrawal but fear Israel will use it as an excuse to tighten its hold on the West Bank, where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with American acquiescence, plans to strengthen large settlement blocs.
Washington hopes the pullout plan will lead to renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Soon after the Israeli army declared the formal start to the pullout operation, furious settlers smashed car windows and set fire to tyres early on Monday.
Protesters set vehicles, tyres
At least four vehicles had their windows smashed at the entrance to the main settlement of Neve Dekalim in the south of the territory where protesters also tried to slash the tyres of a military vehicle.
An army jeep was also among the vehicles which had its windows smashed. The assailants managed to grab a pile of maps of the Gaza settlements which they promptly threw on the burning tyres.
Efforts by officials from the main settlers’ lobby Yesha to calm down the crowds fell on deaf ears and journalists were assaulted by irate youths.
“This is not what we planned but we cannot control these young people,” one of the main leaders of Yesha, Shaul Goldstein, said.
“This activity undermines our struggle,” added Goldstein who is the mayor of the Gush Etzion regional council in the occupied West Bank.
It was only when members of the council’s security team arrived on the scene that the protest began to fizzle out.