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Last Updated: Friday, 19 August 2005, 21:35 GMT 22:35 UK
Positive signs in Gaza
Jeremy Bowen
By Jeremy Bowen
Middle East editor

Palestinian security officer stands on guard
The pullout has gone more smoothly than expected

The evacuation of settlements is going faster and more smoothly than the Israeli government dared to hope.

The Israeli army and police made a clever, detailed plan, and it has worked.

They are pausing now for the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from sunset on Friday night to sunset on Saturday.

When they go back to work, there are still settlements left to empty, but at the rate they are going, no Jewish settlers will be left in Gaza by the middle of next week.

Gun fears

The critical moments came on Thursday afternoon, when they cleared out the synagogues in Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom.

Israelis stayed close to the televisions and radios, where it was all broadcast live. Some of the pictures were ugly. Men were taken out kicking and screaming. Children sobbed and clung to their mothers.

At Kfar Darom the security forces stormed the roof of the synagogue, which had been taken over by young protesters, and were met by an assault of paint, sand and oil. But it could have been so much worse.

The settlers lived in a society where most adults had guns. The Israeli government's nightmare was that someone would open fire.

So far it hasn't happened, and even though it still could, the government and security forces' relief is obvious.

Talks

The two sides in Gaza have been working within limits.

Barricade in Neve Dekalim settlement
Some have put up a fight

Perhaps it is only by tacit agreement, but it became obvious during the operation to carry hundreds of protestors out of the synagogue in the biggest settlement, Neve Dekalim, that was expected to be one of the hardest nuts to crack.

The Israeli papers were full of dire predictions about what would happen, and the settlers said repeatedly that they would not co-operate.

But when it came to it, some of the settlers did talk to the soldiers.

Bearded men dressed in fluorescent orange vests with the word rabbi on them moved between the police and the protesters, distributing water and calming them if they started to get too violent.

The vests must have come from the security forces, and the rabbis must have been there with their consent.

In settlement Israeli civilians were given time to protest, then went fairly quietly.

I saw one of the leaders of Morag, an isolated settlement with a hardline reputation, having an intense conversation with two army officers.

Their arms were round each other's shoulders, like sportsmen going over their tactics in a huddle before a big game.

What next?

A well-placed Israeli sat in a sunny courtyard in Jerusalem at the start of the week and told me that the withdrawal from Gaza could turn into a big turning point in the history of the conflict - or it could become just a footnote.

Palestinian security forces
The next stage depends on both sides
It all depends what happens next.

If Israel can relax the iron grip of its occupation of the West Bank, and if the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can contain militant Palestinians the two sides might even start negotiating again.

On their own the changes in Gaza will not lead to peace.

Israel still controls its borders, its airspace and its territorial waters.

But for the first time an Israeli leader has taken on the settlers.

Israelis who believe that the settlements on the West Bank are an expensive obstacle to peace are hoping that Ariel Sharon has created an unstoppable political dynamic.

Palestinians who watch the West Bank settlements growing are much more pessimistic.

But at the very least an opening has been created, that wasn't there a week ago. It is not perfect, but it's progress.


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