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Israeli Troops Forcibly Remove Gaza Settlers

Violence marred the first full day of the forced evacuation of Israeli settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip (search) on Wednesday.

An Israeli grabbed a gun from a security guard and sprayed a group of Palestinian laborers with gunfire in the West Bank settlement of Shilo, killing three and wounding two, one of whom died later. The shooter was quickly arrested.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) denounced the attack as an act of "Jewish terror ... aimed against innocent Palestinians, out of twisted thinking, aimed at stopping the disengagement."

The gunman, identified as Asher Weisgan, 40, from the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rahel, was a driver who transported Palestinian laborers to the industrial zone of the nearby settlement of Shilo every day. At the end of the work day, he picked up the workers and briefly stopped at a security post.

He got out of his car, seized the weapon from the guard at knifepoint and fired from close range on two workers in his vehicle. He kept shooting, killing a third worker and wounding two others outside the car. One of them died later.

Palestinians later fired a mortar shell toward the Morag settlement (search), but no injuries were reported. The Islamic militant group Hamas (search) threatened to avenge the shootings but said it had an interest in seeing the withdrawal proceed.

"Hamas, as well as all Palestinians, are interested in seeing the Zionist settlers leave our land as soon as possible," said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "But if these crimes continue, factions will not stand by silently."

In Kfar Darom, several hundred settlers went on a rampage, pushing large cinderblocks off a bridge and trying to torch a nearby Arab house, witnesses said. Israel troops brought the fire under control and tried to push the settlers back into Kfar Darom as Palestinians threw stones.

A West Bank settler in southern Israel set herself on fire and suffered life-threatening burns on 70 percent of her body, police and hospital officials said. The 54-year-old woman was taken to a hospital in serious condition.

Police spokeswoman Liat Nidam said the woman who burned herself carried a sign reading, "Impose a closure on the media, destroy the disengagement, put Sharon before a military court."

Sharon reiterated he would never give up the West Bank's largest settlement blocs. He said settlers' efforts were not in vain, but it no longer was realistic to hold on to Gaza, where 1.3 million Palestinians live in crowded, impoverished conditions.

Also, Israeli troops found a 22-pound explosives belt hidden in a water tank during a raid on the Palestinian town of Mawasi, near a Gaza settlement. Four Palestinians, allegedly members of the Islamic Jihad militant group, were arrested, the army said in a statement.

Despite the escalation of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the eviction of die-hard settlers and their nationalist supporters who flooded into Gaza in recent weeks moved forward — with anguish, anger and tears, but more swiftly and smoothly than anyone anticipated.

Some 14,000 unarmed Israeli soldiers and police entered six settlements throughout Wednesday, forcibly evicting residents who refused to leave voluntarily. According to the army, 1,842 people were evacuated Wednesday. Of 1,600 families in Gaza's 21 settlements, only 600 remained by the end of the day.

By evening, five of the six settlements that troops entered in the morning were cleared, with resisters remaining only in Neve Dekalim — for months the epicenter of resistance. Morag, Bedolah, Ganei Tal, Tel Katifa and Kerem Atzmona were deserted.

Soldiers and settlers clashed, argued and hugged, reflecting intense and mixed emotions at the uprooting of settlers whose government years ago encouraged them to move to Gaza for the sake of Israel's security.

"It's impossible to watch this ... without tears in the eyes," Sharon said, but he insisted the pullout would make Israel safer.

Sharon proposed his "disengagement plan" two years ago to ease Israel's security burden and help preserve the country's Jewish character by placing Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians outside Israeli boundaries.

Palestinian militants are portraying the pullout as a victory for their suicide bombings and rocket attacks. Some fear militants will resume bloodshed once Israel's Gaza withdrawal is complete.

Israelis and Palestinians have been cooperating to prevent militant violence during the pullout, though lately Jewish extremists have caused the most concern. Wednesday's attack was the second on Palestinians by Israelis in two weeks. On Aug. 4, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier opened fire on a bus, killing four Israeli Arabs.

Hours after a midnight deadline to evacuate willingly, Israeli soldiers were still forcibly removing defiant settlers from homes and houses of worship throughout communities in the Gaza Strip.

Unarmed soldiers carried away worshippers wrapped in white prayer shawls. Wailing men ripped their shirts in a Jewish mourning ritual. Women in a synagogue pressed their faces against the curtain covering the Torah scroll.

In Neve Dekalim, dozens of soldiers entered a Gaza yeshiva, or seminary, where settlers linked arms in a wide circle and swayed together in prayer. Soldiers formed a ring around the worshippers, but some troops, still wearing their flak jackets, joined them in prayer.

Another 1,000 resisters held out in the settlement's synagogue.

Settlers kicked and screamed while being loaded onto buses. One woman in Neve Dekalim shouted, "I don't want to! I don't want to!" as she was carried away.

Irate residents in one outpost employed Nazi-era imagery — including stars of David on their T-shirts — to protest the military's actions.

Under a weeping willow tree at a children's nursery, mothers clutched their babies, soldiers carried toddlers, settlers ripped their clothes and troops loaded diapers and toys onto buses for evacuation.

A female soldier with tears in her eyes held a toddler, gave him candy and implored, "Where is his mother?" Another soldier waved away flies from a toddler in a stroller.

Earlier on Wednesday, troops solemnly entered Gaza's largest synagogue to remove hundreds of worshippers, taking time to join them as they swayed in prayer.

Throughout the day, some 14,000 troops entered six Jewish settlements — Morag, Neve Dekalim, Bedolah, Ganei Tal, Tel Katifa and Kerem Atzmona. By evening, all but Neve Dekalim were emptied, military officials and witnesses said.

The army said it arrested 52 Israelis headed Wednesday to Homesh, one of the settlements slated for evacuation.

Security officials said the goal was to clear out the 21 Gaza settlements in a few days, far more quickly than originally planned. But thousands of pullout opponents who infiltrated Gaza in recent weeks remained.

Sharon, who championed the settlements for years, said the images of settlers being removed from their homes were heartbreaking.

"It's impossible to watch this, and that includes myself, without tears in the eyes," he told a news conference.

But he urged settlers to show restraint.

"I'm appealing to everyone. Don't attack the men and women in uniform. Don't accuse them. Don't make it harder for them, don't harm them. Attack me. I am responsible for this. Attack me. Accuse me," Sharon said.

There were few reports of settler violence against Israeli troops, though a brigade commander told FOX News that a female settler had stabbed one of his soldiers with a needle. Overall, he said the operation was a success.

"It was a very emotional meeting with the settlers, who are very warm and important believers," Colonel Chaim Moriya said. "They are good people and we are kicking them out of their houses."

Moriya oversaw the operation to evacuate the Morag settlement, which was coming to a close. One settler was seen forcibly carried away by troops as he spoke to FOX News.

When asked what advice he was giving his soldiers, he said, "I understand them and it's all right to cry, but at the same time keep performing the mission."

A young Israeli who gave his name as Benjamin was among the West Bank Israelis who infiltrated the Gaza settlements to resist the soldiers. He said he and others like him traveled to the settlements to protest the evacuation and Sharon's government.

"We're here because the democracy of Israel is violated. We chose Ariel Sharon as our leader because he promised he wouldn't give any of our areas away because we want true peace," he told FOX News.

Within seconds a group of settlers gathered around the young man and began screaming for him to leave because it wasn't his fight. Some settlers, resigned to their fate, have said they don't want their last images of home to be ones of chaos and discord.

The Israeli government stood by its assertion that the pullout was a necessary step toward peace, but praised the military for handling their difficult task with dignity.

"I think Israel is weeping today," spokesman Ra'anan Gissin told FOX News. "But I think the soldiers and policemen are carrying this operation with a great deal of compassion and sensitivity to its completion. They are doing something that no other military in the world has done — evacuating hundreds of people from their homes without any casualties."

Gissin also said that the withdrawal was by no means a concession to Palestinians, who would be expected to make some sacrifices of their own.

"From here we go only to the road map to peace, or we stay put. It depends very much what measures the Palestinians will take and whether they will, for the first time in a lifetime, take their destiny into their hands," Gissin said.

A non-negotiable condition of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan is for the Palestinian government to dismantle terrorist organizations like Hamas.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas urged restraint, telling Islamic preachers in his Gaza office: "We should let them go peacefully in order not to give them any reason to delay the evacuation."

The Palestinians have deployed thousands of troops to prevent any attacks on settlers or Israeli soldiers during the withdrawal. Palestinians have welcomed the evacuation but also fear that Israel is trying to draw borders without negotiations.

Abbas said the Palestinians will build a sea port at Netzarim and a new city at Morag. The Israelis will leave behind 152 public buildings inside the settlements that can be used by the Palestinians, he said.

In the settlement of Morag, troops smashed through a cinderblock barricade, forming a human chain to push back a line of settlers. Young protesters set two garbage containers on fire as security forces dragged settlers who had holed up in the settlement's main synagogue to police buses to be driven out of Gaza.

Young men who had climbed onto the building's roof shouted, "This is not the Israeli army we know and served" and "Jews don't evict Jews."

Israeli security forces forced doors to enter houses in Morag. One family, who had lived in their house for 32 years, denounced the pullout ordered by Sharon and said it would only result in more terrorism. They tearfully tried to negotiate the abandonment of their home with the security forces.

Soldiers working in groups of three escorted settlers out of the synagogue one at a time. Women covered themselves in prayer shawls and pleaded with soldiers to leave them be.

Israeli authorities said they planned to have the settlement cleared by nightfall, but were taking their time to make sure the situation did not get out of hand.

Settlers in Morag remained mostly peaceful, opting instead to use psychological warfare tactics on the troops.

"You should be ashamed at what you are doing," screamed a woman pushing a baby stroller.

Other women wore plastic signs saying "victim," and chanted "You won't be able to look at yourselves in the mirror," as the soldiers walked by.

Eval Giladi, a senior government official, said all of Gaza's 21 settlements could be emptied within two days — far more quickly than the weeklong program that was initially planned.

Security officials said the residents of hard-line settlement Netzarim had reached agreement with the military to leave voluntarily next Monday. Some residents, however, denied a deal had been made.

Once Gaza is cleared of civilians, it will take troops about a month to dismantle military installations and relinquish all of the coastal strip to Palestinian control. The pullout is part of Israel's plan to "disengage" from the Palestinians, who have welcomed the evacuation but who also fear that Israel is trying to draw borders without negotiations.

Israeli leaders have said giving up Gaza and removing Israelis from their homes is painful, but essential for Israel's security.

"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," said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told his Cabinet he was forming eight teams to coordinate the takeover of settlement land, including representatives of the militant Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (search) groups.

The Gaza withdrawal is a landmark moment in the Mideast conflict. Although Israel relinquished other land captured in 1967 to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty, this is the first Israeli pullout from territory claimed by Palestinians for their own state.

Critics of Sharon say he is giving away Gaza and getting nothing in return. Gaza is part of the Jews' biblical heritage and Sharon has no right to abandon it, they say.

FOX News' Mike Tobin, Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.