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Largest Gaza settlement evacuated, Israel says

Thirteen of 21 Gaza settlements now stand empty



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NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza (CNN) -- Israeli troops and police have completed the evacuation of the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza, the scene of emotional protests earlier in the day, the Israeli military announced late Thursday.

By evening, Neve Dekalim resembled a ghost town. Israel Defense Forces officials and Israeli police said the roughly 1,500 residents and 350 protesters had been evacuated by 10 p.m. (3 p.m. ET)

Earlier, thousands of unarmed police and soldiers had to forcibly remove hundreds of protesters holed up inside a synagogue. Protesters there packed a central sanctuary, filling up the pews, aisles and floor space, clapping and chanting, "Jews don't expel Jews!"

Most of the protesters were not residents of Neve Dekalim but young, radical activists strongly opposed to the Israeli government's plan to withdraw from Gaza.

Nonetheless, by Thursday more than half of the Gaza settlements were cleared, Israeli officials said, as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, which he says should reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In Kfar Darom, at least 830 people had been removed, Israeli military officials said.

It wasn't clear how many of the community's 500 residents were included in that figure, and it doesn't take into account at least two busloads of protesters removed from the synagogue there.

Protesters there threw paint-filled light bulbs at police, who responded with a water cannon loaded with blue dye and turpentine-tainted water.

Police said protesters also threw diluted acid on the Israeli forces, who quickly stripped off their shirts -- some down to their underwear -- to be rinsed off by their comrades.

Medics took away on stretchers at least two protesters and one police officer.

The most violent protesters will face charges, Israeli police Maj. Gen. David Tzur said.

Some settlers don't want to leave because they believe Gaza is part of the traditional Jewish homeland. Other Israelis say the move rewards terrorists and will lead to more attacks from Palestinian militant groups.

Neve Dekalim standoff

The action in Neve Dekalim came after hours of unsuccessful negotiations with religious leaders inside the synagogue.

Authorities cut electricity to the synagogue, silencing a speaker system on which protest leaders exhorted those inside to stand firm. The troops used a bullhorn to give the demonstrators 10 minutes to get out.

Soldiers poured sand and dirt on a ramp that protesters had covered in oil. Troops then rushed into the building.

Demonstrators outside the synagogue wrapped their arms around metal railings to prevent their removal. They kicked and struggled, as they were being carried into police vans.

Israel Defense Forces Capt. Yael Harman acknowledged that the standoffs in Kfar Darom and Neve Dekalim were challenging.

"These are the more difficult evacuations," Hartman said. Going into synagogues is "traumatic" for the troops, she said. "Many of our soldiers are religious, and it's very difficult for them to conceive of the idea of going into a religious building and trying to pull those people out. ... But this is what we must do. It's for their safety and the soldiers' safety that it happen as quickly and efficiently as possible."

Operation not over

Thirteen of the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza had been evacuated by late Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces announced and Israeli security officials reported. .

It's hoped that the evacuations under way now will be concluded by sundown Friday -- the beginning of the Sabbath.

The removals will resume at the end of the Sabbath, at sundown Saturday.

The Israeli government is evicting all 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza and four small areas of the West Bank -- along with the Israeli soldiers who guard them, in the largest peacetime operation in Israel's history. A month after the evacuations, Israel is to hand over to Palestinian control the area it has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Settlers who chose to remain after the deadline -- which was Monday, although they were given a 48-hour grace period -- stand to lose up to a third of their compensation package, which ranges from $250,000 to $500,000 per family.

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

CNN's Guy Raz, Yoav Appel, Shira Meddings, John Vause and Michal Zippori contributed to this report.

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