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Deadline for Gaza evictions passes

Israel says about half of Jewish settlers already departed

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The midnight deadline for Israel's evacuation of Gaza passed with Israel Defense Forces preparing to remove the remaining Jewish settlers.

Thousands of Israeli soldiers went door-to-door late Tuesday asking residents to leave as the deadline loomed.

Some residents ignored their pleas, while some shouted at them and others complied.

Meanwhile, cheering Palestinian militants declared the relocations a victory.

The Israeli army, in the largest peacetime operation in its history, expects to take three weeks to complete the removal of settlers from Gaza.

A month later, Israel is to hand over to Palestinian control the area it has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Under an agreement made with the Palestinians, the structures built by the settlers will be demolished before that handover occurs.

Emotions were running high.

"Here in this country, your country, are you proud? Will you be proud in the future?" one woman screamed at the Israeli soldiers.

While some settlers burned their homes rather than leave them behind, others went about their lives as normal in defiance.

"We're not packing. We are not leaving. We believe in staying here," said one young woman, Yael Fogel, as she lounged by her front door.

An IDF general said about half of Gaza's Jewish settlers had left the territory before the midnight deadline (5 p.m. ET).

"Close to 50 percent of the residents have left," said Brig. Gen. Eyval Giladi. "I would say that in a few days, there will be no settlers or infiltrators left in Gaza."

Those who chose to remain after the deadline stand to lose up to a third of their compensation package, which ranges from $250,000 to $500,000 per family.

Gen. Dan Harel, the IDF's southern commander, earlier said troops would begin evacuating Neveh Dekalim, Gaza's largest Jewish settlement, shortly after midnight.

Settlers who have not left by midnight will be forcibly removed by the army.

By 10 p.m., troops and police were pouring into the settlement to be in place should a forced evacuation be needed.

There are about 2,600 permanent residents of Neveh Dekalim, and hundreds of protesters have gathered there.

Injuries, arrests

The second day of evacuations was not without incident.

"Throughout the course of the day security forces have faced incidents of civil disobedience instigated by infiltrators into Gush Katif, who disrupted the exit of residents who wished to leave the communities," an IDF spokesman said.

"Two Israeli policemen were wounded lightly," the IDF spokesman said. "The Israeli police have arrested 217 lawbreaking citizens inside the Gaza Strip and 320 citizens who entered the closed military zone near Kissufim crossing."

On Monday, Israeli troops began distributing evacuation notices in the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small settlements on the West Bank, where there are a total of about 120. (Full story)

The withdrawal is part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to remove around 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza and four areas of the West Bank, along with the Israeli troops who guard them.

Sharon has said he hopes the disengagement will re-launch the peace process with the Palestinian Authority.

Some settlers who oppose the pullout plan say Gaza is part of the traditional Jewish homeland.

Other secular Israelis contend the move rewards terrorists and will lead to more attacks from Palestinian militant groups.

Former Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bemoaned the impending removal of settlers from Gaza as "good intentions badly played out." He predicted the area will become an international haven for terrorists. (Full story)

Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi said Palestinians are encouraged by the move but that some see the pullout as an attempt by Sharon to circumvent the road map to peace.

"People are skeptical but, at the same time, people are encouraged by the precedent," she said.

Plan 'will be carried out on time'

Giladi said the IDF is in no hurry. The general said the army is well aware that the settlers over the past 30 years had "put down roots and are now being made to leave against their will."

He said the disengagement plan is the decision of the Israeli government and "it will be carried out on time."

Asked about the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 protesters who have infiltrated Gaza and are attempting to disrupt the evacuation, Giladi said the military will use "the minimum force necessary."

But he added, "We will treat them differently than families who have been here for 20 to 30 years."

He said he hoped and believed there would not be armed resistance, but the IDF is ready if there is.

"We are going to do whatever it takes," he said.

Giladi would not discuss the evacuation operations. He said settlers taken out of Gaza will be driven to the nearest town, but he indicated they would be taken elsewhere in Israel if they wish.

When all the settlers are out, he said, the Israeli military will evacuate its own equipment and infrastructure before turning over the settlements to the Palestinians. He said all the settlements will be turned over at once, not one by one.

Coordinating with Palestinians

Giladi said the IDF has been coordinating with Palestinian authorities and described the coordination as going well, with results visible on the ground.

Israel has committed 55,000 soldiers and 8,000 police to the effort. Israeli officials have said soldiers who refuse to carry through with the orders face court-martial.

Earlier in the day, the Israeli military said the settlement of Dugit in northern Gaza had been completely evacuated. The settlement had been home to about 70 people.

The IDF said settlers, many of them secular Jews, were also leaving two larger nearby settlements -- Elei Sinai and Nisanit.

Tuesday began with Israeli troops and police cutting down the large green gate to the Neveh Dekalim settlement where protesters -- many of them young and not residents of the settlements -- blocked them on Monday.

A short time later, burning tires temporarily blocked the path of Israeli soldiers at the entrance to the Elei Sinai settlement in northern Gaza.

In the northern West Bank, the IDF said the evacuation of the settlements of Ganim and Kadim was completed Monday evening.

Palestinian militants, waving flags and carrying guns, staged several celebrations at Khan Yunis near the Neveh Dekalim settlement. Speakers praised the Palestinians, proclaiming the pullout to be a great victory.

Palestinian security forces turned out in force and did not allow the demonstrators to march south toward Neveh Dekalim.

Gaza, a 140-square-mile area of coastal land between Israel and the Mediterranean, is home to about 1.3 million Palestinians.

CNN's Paula Hancocks, John Vause and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

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