NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip – The deadline for Jewish settlers to evacuate the Gaza Strip (search) on their own passed at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, and Israeli troops prepared to begin forcibly removing those who refused to leave.
It was believed that the Israeli Army wouldn't begin physically evicting settlers until 6 a.m. local time on Wednesday (11 p.m. EDT Tuesday), though soldiers could be forced to confront illegal infiltrators in the region overnight, FOX News has learned.
Thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters defied the deadline, attacking Israeli troops and dancing around the Torah in celebration of their resistance to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search)'s historic plan to disengage from the Palestinians.
While a few of Gaza's 21 communities were deserted by midnight, settlers and their supporters in other outposts hunkered down to await a dawn confrontation with Israeli forces prepared to forcibly evict them. Settler leaders shouted over bullhorns for protesters to go to bed and conserve their strength.
Before the deadline passed, hundreds of troops poured into Gaza's largest settlement, Neve Dekalim (search) — the epicenter of resistance — urging residents one last time to leave on their own or be evicted.
At times, both settlers and soldiers were reduced to tears as they argued over wisdom of Israel's abandoning Gaza, land seized from Egypt in 1967 and the focus of deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.
One woman was overheard telling a soldier how her mother was forced to pack her bags and flee Nazi Germany. "Just remember that you are the evil one who is throwing me out of my house," the woman said, rebuffing the soldier's offer of help.
After nightfall, some 2,000 soldiers marched in formation through the settlement gate and fanned out through the village. Commanders held maps in their hands, and troops took up positions near the industrial zone, linking arms to form a cordon.
Demonstrators attacked army troops and buses in an effort to disrupt the peaceful departure of settlers who had packed their belongings into trucks in an effort to meet the deadline.
Earlier Tuesday, 50 Israeli settlers were arrested for tangling with Israeli forces.
The clashes were the roughest confrontation between troops and settlers since the operation, which began just one day before. Some protesters burned tires, threw stones and eggs, and refused to accept eviction notices, while others formed human chains in an attempt to block entrance to the settlements by Israeli forces.
Troops were trying to clear a path for moving trucks in Neve Dekalim. The army said security forces detained 50 Israelis for clashing with police and soldiers attempting to help Gaza settlers leave, mostly in Neve Dekalim.
All Jewish settlers had a midnight deadline to leave the Gaza Strip voluntarily or face eviction by force. FOX News has learned that during the physical eviction process, the Israeli army and police will focus on southern settlements where they believe they will face less resistance.
Moments before midnight, scores of settlers were in synagogues in several Gaza communities, dancing around sacred Torah scrolls. They waved flags and sang nationalist songs in a show of defiance against Sharon's plan to unilaterally hand the territory to Palestinian control.
Israeli officials said about half of the Gaza's 1,600 settlement families had left voluntarily. At least three settlements were abandoned, and several more were nearly deserted. Military spokeswoman Miri Regev said the army would assist anyone who wanted to leave voluntarily, even after the deadline.
Settlers Don't Go Quietly
Earlier in Neve Dekalim, the army burst through the main gate to clear the way for about 120 moving trucks. Within hours, a crowd blocked the trucks from entering, and scuffles erupted when security forces tried to push the crowd back.
Protesters pelted soldiers with bottles, eggs and stones, and set fire to garbage bins and tires. Smoke blackened the air. Police said four officers were injured — one by an unspecified liquid thrown in his face.
Settlers in several farming communities burned their greenhouses and homes rather than leave them behind. One man punched holes in the walls of his house with a sledgehammer.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he expected the evacuation to take two about weeks. "I look with hope to the future, that the price we are paying ... will in the end bring about a positive change in Israel's situation," he said.
Israeli authorities said once Gaza is cleared of civilians it will take several weeks more before Israel finishes dismantling its military installations and relinquishes the coastal strip.
The fiercest resistance came from some 5,000 Jewish nationalists who slipped into Gaza over the past few weeks to reinforce the anti-withdrawal camp. Police handcuffed and detained several withdrawal opponents Tuesday, seeming to target the infiltrators.
Sharon has said giving up any territory and taking down settlements is very painful, and this week's confrontations could help his argument that Israel is making a huge concession that deserves international recognition.
By nightfall, three settlements — Dugit, Peat Sadeh and Rafiah Yam — were abandoned, and most residents had left three others. Several others were thinning out.
Hundreds of die-hard opponents continued trying to reach Gaza, trampling over Israeli cropland near the border to circumvent army roadblocks. Police set up more roadblocks late Tuesday to stop them. About 1,000 more protesters camped outside Sharon's Jerusalem residence.
The military commander of the Gaza sector, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said the army had been working with the Palestinian Authority on the evacuation and the "cooperation is very good." At Israel's request, Palestinian police dispersed several marches that were threatening to move toward Israeli positions, he said.
The level of Palestinian attacks had fallen sharply, he said, with only three incidents recorded since the evacuation began on Monday. No one was hurt in any of those.
Palestinians held noisy demonstrations in Gaza City to celebrate the Israeli pullout. Young men cruised the city in open cars, some firing rifles into the air and brandishing rocket launchers.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) told his Cabinet he was forming eight teams to coordinate the takeover of settlement land, and was including representatives of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.
The Gaza withdrawal is a landmark moment in the Mideast conflict. Although Israel has relinquished other land to Egypt captured in 1967 in exchange for a peace treaty, this is the first time Israel is withdrawing from territory claimed by the Palestinians for their own state.
Sharon's critics say he's giving away Gaza and getting nothing in return. Some say Gaza is part of the Jews' biblical heritage, and Sharon has no right to abandon it.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) sent Sharon a message of support. "I greatly admire the courage with which you have developed and implemented this policy," he wrote.
On the last day in Gaza for most of them, settlers bade tearful farewells to the farms and gardens they fashioned from sand and scrub. Religious settlers called it a "funeral." Some settlers, especially those threatening to resist eviction, maintained a normal routine until the end.
Thousands at Neve Dekalim inaugurated a mikvah, or ritual bath, with joyous songs of prayer and dancing with the Torah, the hand-scripted five books of Moses.
Stewart Tucker, a former Cleveland biology teacher who helped found the first Gaza settlement in 1975, harvested celery. "I don't know if we will get paid for it but at least we are picking," he said.
Day One of the evacuation saw little trouble. Troops refrained from forcing their way into settlements with eviction notices, warning settlers that anyone left in Gaza after midnight Tuesday would be evicted and could lose part of their government-promised compensation often amounting to several hundred thousand dollars.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.