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Israel completes settler withdrawal plan

Bush: Establish 'working government in Gaza'



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West Bank

SANUR, West Bank (CNN) -- Israel evacuated the last settlers and protesters from the West Bank settlement of Homesh on Tuesday, the military said, completing its historic withdrawal of civilians from 25 settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

"Today, we accomplished the first phase of the disengagement process ... related to evacuation of the civilians," Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said.

Israeli forces plan to remove the settlers' belongings and destroy their houses and then withdraw from Gaza.

Authorities used force at times Tuesday to clear the two remaining West Bank settlements -- Homesh and Sanur.

Before Sanur was evacuated, forces used a crane and container to remove protesters from the roof of an old fortress in the settlement. In Homesh, demonstrators in a school refused to move and security forces picked them up and carried them away.

Israel completed its withdrawal from 21 settlements in Gaza on Monday, and settlers had been evacuated from the other West Bank settlements included in the plan -- Ganim and Kadim.

About 120 Jewish settlements remain in the West Bank after the evacuations, according to the Israel-based Web site

President Bush, asked a question Tuesday by reporters about the next step in the region, called on Palestinians to establish "a working government in Gaza, a government that responds to the people."

Bush said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas "has made a commitment to fight off" Palestinian "violence because he understands a democracy can't exist with terrorist groups trying to take the law into their own hands."

Earlier, authorities said about 600 people remained in Sanur -- as many as 200 of them anti-withdrawal activists.

Military cranes lifted a cargo container which carried police to the top of the fortress that served as Sanur's community center. Police removed about 50 protesters who had barricaded themselves on the roof.

On the outside of the stone fortress, a banner declared: "A curse upon those who evacuate us."

About 300 settlers who had barricaded themselves inside the fortress also were removed, commanders said.

About five miles away in Homesh, Israeli forces raided a religious school, where about 40 protesters waited. They sat praying and singing with arms and legs locked to make their removal more difficult.

Television images broadcast from inside the school showed Israeli soldiers struggling with the student protesters, slowly extracting one at a time and carrying them to a waiting bus outside.

Other soldiers negotiated with students, attempting to get them to give up and leave.

Two settlers, one in Homesh and one in Sanur, tried to stab Israeli soldiers, the Israel Defense Forces said. In Homesh, a settler who was drunk was arrested after attempting to stab a soldier, IDF said.

In Sanur, a civilian stabbed a female soldier during a scuffle, the IDF said, describing the soldier's wounds as light. The civilian was taken into custody.

The clearance of Homesh and Sanur marked the end of the "main part" of Sharon's disengagement process -- the settlements must still be demolished, said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir.

"A process that the Israel government ... took upon itself in order to extend our hand in peace to the Palestinians," Meir said. "This is what Israel is willing to do in order to live in peace with the Palestinians."

He said now is the time "for the Palestinians to disengage themselves from terror and violence."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has invested much of his political future in his pullout plan, which is aimed at invigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Some settlers didn't wish to leave because they said the settlements are part of the traditional Jewish homeland. Some said they believe the pullout rewarded terrorists and will lead to more attacks from Palestinian militant groups.

In Ganim, a previously cleared West Bank settlement, the demolition of the community has begun, Israeli security sources said.

Gaza cleared

On Monday, the final group of Israeli settlers in Gaza boarded buses to leave the settlement of Netzarim, as part of the pullout plan. Some of the settlers were sobbing, others stone-faced, but all walked out peacefully.

In their final moments at the community that had been a home for many for decades, settlers sang, danced and prayed together with Israeli troops who were there to evict them.

Looking out at the barren Netzarim afterward, Gen. Dan Harel, Israel Defense Forces' southern commander, declared, "There are no Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip." (Full story)

Palestinian leaders had initially criticized the pullout plan after Sharon unveiled it in December 2003, saying such a step should not be taken without first negotiating with the Palestinians.

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