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Emotions flare as Gaza pullout begins

Israeli soldiers serve eviction notices on Jewish settlers



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GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Thousands of Israeli soldiers began fanning out around Jewish settlements in Gaza Monday to deliver eviction notices, warning residents they have until Wednesday to leave voluntarily or be removed by force.

It was heated at times, but soldiers attempted to avoid confrontation even as long-time residents shouted in their faces.

"This is a stupid order," one man in Morag yelled at an Israeli army commander, who responded by hugging the settler.

"For God's sake, you are a Jew. You are my brother," another man shouted.

The army commander hugged and kissed that settler, too -- showing the emotional toll the Gaza disengagement plan is taking on the parties involved.

Some soldiers were called Nazis as they delivered eviction notices in Morag.

"It can't really get worse," Lt. Eli Ovits said. "We personally disagree with the connection between the Holocaust and the disengagement."

Under the eviction notices handed out Monday, settlers have 48 hours to leave Gaza. The notification process also began in four West Bank settlements.

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

Sharon: 'Great anguish'

In an address to the nation Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the disengagement is being carried out with "great anguish," but is necessary and good for Israel.

"I understand the feelings, the pain and the cries of those who object," he said. "However, we are one nation even when fighting and arguing."

Sharon, who has invested much of his political future in the disengagement plan, said at one point he had hoped Israel would be able to "hang on" to the Gaza settlements but that is no longer possible.

"We can't hang on to Gaza forever where there are more than a million Palestinians who are doubling their numbers by the generation," he said. "This plan is good for Israel in any future scenario. We are reducing the day-to-day friction and its victims on both sides."

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called it a "very painful process for all of us." But he said it is necessary in the long term to improve ties with Palestinians.

"This is the first step in establishing a new partner in relations between us and the Palestinians. The rest will have to be done through negotiations," he told CNN. "We are determined to change the Middle East."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will issue a decree in the coming days calling on the Palestinian people to take part in general elections on January 21, 2006.

The decree, he said, will send a message to Hamas and other militant organizations: "They must understand that the transfer of power and authorities will have to be through ballots and not bullets."

Forces tread lightly

On Monday, Israeli soldiers faced off with Israeli protesters -- most of them young and not residents of Gaza -- as the forces handed out eviction notices to Jewish settlers.

While crowds of young protesters barred gates in about a half-dozen of the 21 Gaza settlements, the Israel Defense Forces took a conciliatory tone.

The IDF allowed leaders of some Jewish settlements to hand out the notices. The forces also evaded protesters by entering settlements through back routes and refused to immediately enter a handful of the settlements.

While the protesters refused to allow the soldiers to enter the Jewish settlement of Neveh Dekalim, they stood back to allow three trucks through the gates of the settlement. Those trucks will ferry out the belongings of settlers who want to leave.

The scene was similar in other settlements where protest leaders said the wishes of settlers who wanted to voluntarily leave had to be honored.

In the northern West Bank, the IDF said the evacuation of the settlements of Ganim and Kadim was completed Monday evening. Residents of the two mostly secular settlements had gradually left their homes in recent weeks, and on Monday the last families moved out.

Sharon said the withdrawal of about 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza and the four small sections of the West Bank, along with hundreds of Israeli troops who guard them from Palestinian militants, is a hopeful step toward the resumption of the peace process.

"Now the Palestinians bear the burden of proof," he said. "They must fight terror organizations, dismantle its infrastructure and show sincere intentions of peace in order to sit with us at the negotiating table.

"The world awaits the Palestinian response -- a hand offered in peace or continued terrorist fire. To a hand offered in peace, we will respond with an olive branch. But if they choose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever."

Wednesday deadline nears

Israeli commanders have said that their real test will come Wednesday when settlers who have not voluntarily left and the young protesters -- believed to number between 5,000 and 6,000 -- will have to be removed by force.

Sharon told the settlers, "Your pain and your tears are an inseparable part of the history of this country. Whatever disagreements we have, we will not abandon you."

Settlers who cooperate will receive Israeli government compensation for the loss of their homes. While the amount will vary, the aid package approved by the Knesset totals $870 million.

To the Israeli soldiers and police who will have to remove the settlers and protesters who resist, Sharon said they are not confronting an enemy.

"It's not an enemy you face, rather your brothers and sisters. Sensitivity and patience are the order of the hour," he said.

"The entire nation stands behind you and is proud of you."

The withdrawal marks the first such move in the West Bank and Gaza since Israel occupied the territories after the Six-Day War in 1967.

Polls continue to show that the majority of Israelis support the Sharon government's disengagement plan.

But some settlers say they believe that Gaza is part of the traditional Jewish homeland. Other secular Israelis say they believe the move rewards terrorists and will lead to more attacks from Palestinian militant groups.

Palestinians deploy police

Palestinians, meanwhile, cheered the voluntary withdrawal, something many of them believed would never happen.

Palestinian leadership dispatched 7,500 police and security forces near Jewish settlements in southern Gaza, officials said. About 20,000 Palestinian police and security personnel plan to take part in preventing attacks and violence.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Sha'ath said security forces will be up to the challenge.

"Our security forces are fully deployed now close to settlement areas in coordination with Israeli authorities," he said. "We will keep the peace."

Once the settlers are gone, Israel plans to withdraw its troops from Gaza by the beginning of October.

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

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