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Israel Begins Forced Evacuation of Gaza Settlers

Israeli troops have begun to forcibly remove Jewish settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip - after a 48-hour deadline for the settlers to leave voluntarily expired at midnight. As the operation got under way, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appealed for settler restraint.

This was the kind of reception security forces got when they came into Neve Dekalim - the largest of the Gaza settlements.

A settler, holding his young daughter - lifted her up before a line of soldiers, screaming at them - asking if they would evict her from her home. One of the soldiers briefly spoke with the man, but others stood motionless as he moved along.

Neve Dekalim was expected to be among the trouble spots. Hundreds of settlers, joined by additional hundreds of young anti-disengagement activists who had infiltrated the area, vowed to resist.

Still, teams of unarmed soldiers marched door-to-door, forcibly carrying settlers out to awaiting buses for transport out of Gaza.

Soldiers scuffled with some of the more violent protesters who hurled eggs and water at them. Dozens of extremists were arrested and bundled onto buses for transport out.

In another trouble spot, Morag, some settlers climbed onto rooftops and protesters set up barricades of trash containers and rocks to try to stop the soldiers from entering.

Once inside the soldiers faced similar scenes of settlers pleading, crying and refusing to leave.

Here a young settler tells a woman soldier that she cannot understand why the soldiers are doing this. "We are not your enemy," she pleads. "You are my sister," the soldier responds. "As your sister, I want to do this with kindness not with violence."

Some settlers held their small children out the window - as they remained holed up on the upper floor of their homes.

Troops also moved into other settlements. In the hard-line enclave of Kerem Atzmona, dozens of settlers resisted attempts to evict them, calling soldiers "Nazis" and shouting at them "Jews don't expel Jews."

As this crucial phase of the evacuation operation got under way Wednesday, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon appealed to the settlers and their supporters not to resort to violence.

"Attack me, blame me alone, I'm responsible for this," Mr. Sharon said. "It was my decision."

Mr. Sharon spoke after meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem. And, the president quickly cut in to correct Mr. Sharon's wording - saying, "You mean criticize me, not attack."

Mr. Sharon appealed to settlers not to resort to physical or verbal violence against the soldiers and police sent to remove them from their homes.

He said the scenes from the evacuation were heartbreaking, but he said he felt strongly that despite the pain of the evacuation, Israel would emerge stronger in the end.

Under Mr. Sharon's disengagement plan, some 9,000 settlers will be evacuated from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the northern West Bank. In addition to defiant settlers, soldiers are also facing resistance from thousands of religious and nationalist militants who have infiltrated into Gaza from Israel and some West Bank settlements.

The authorities said about half the settlers had left voluntarily by Tuesday night's deadline. Over 50,000 soldiers and police are part of this operation and are tasked with removing the settlers and protesters and guarding against violence from both Jewish extremists as well as Palestinian militants.