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Clashes As Gaza Braces For Pullout

As the Israeli military on Thursday isolated the Gaza Strip, declaring it a "closed military zone" to prevent Jewish extremists from going in, police stormed a hotel where extremists were holed up and removed them all in minutes an unplanned dress rehearsal for the August pullout.

The lightning operation on Thursday targeted the most dangerous of the opponents — West Bank extremists, some with long records of violence, who said they would battle against the Gaza pullout to the death.

But they quickly surrendered to the overwhelming numbers of security forces, struggling and shouting as soldiers lifted them from the floor of the hotel dining room and carried them outside.

"You're expelling Jews like the Germans, like the Russians," shouted media-wise West Bank hard-liner Nadia Matter at the soldiers, who ignored her as TV cameras recorded her words.

Tension has been rising with Israel's planned pullout from Gaza less than two months away, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. Only residents of Gaza are now allowed to enter and leave the area, in an attempt to prevent Jewish militants from entering Gaza to resist the withdrawal. The settlers say the government has imprisoned them, before expelling them.

Also Thursday, a group of about 50 Gaza pullout opponents briefly blocked a main Jerusalem thoroughfare, police said. The attempt came a day after hundreds of protesters shut down main thoroughfares throughout Israel by lying down on the roads. On Wednesday, police pushed, shoved and dragged protesters out of the road and used a water cannon to disperse the crowds.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called the Jewish extremists "hooligans" and added, "Preparations for disengagement and the disengagement itself will go ahead as planned with no hesitation. This is a test of the nation's authority, and the nation will pass the test with honor." He spoke Thursday at an air force ceremony.

The extremists had welded bars on the windows and had supplies of food, water and gasoline, preparing firebombs and nails.

But the military blocked reinforcements from arriving by declaring all of Gaza a "closed military zone," banning all civilians except for residents from entering, and the squatters said they decided not to resist.

Settlers and their backers oppose the pullout on several grounds. Despite Sharon's denials, they believe one withdrawal will inevitably be followed by others, and Orthodox Jews, who make up the majority of the most visible opponents, say no Israeli government has the right to relinquish control of parts of the God-given Promised Land.

The military absorbed criticism from local media for delaying the expulsion until a day after some of the extremists clashed with soldiers and Palestinians in a nearby neighborhood. A Palestinian was seriously wounded when a rock hit him in the head, and young Jews threw more rocks at him as he lay unconscious on the ground with an Israeli soldier trying to protect him.

At nightfall, the abandoned seaside hotel and grounds looked like a battlefield after a retreat. Smoke rose from smoldering tires and trash cans, and soldiers wandered around. The military set up a table to pass out refreshments to the forces left behind to guard the site.

Near Jerusalem, meanwhile, pullout opponents briefly blocked a highway for the second day in a row.

Speaking at an economic conference in Jerusalem Thursday evening, Sharon denounced the extremists. "Hooliganism ... is not the way of Judaism," he said. "We will not allow anyone to raise a hand against an Israeli soldier or police officer."

Sharon presented his plan to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank, uprooting 9,000 settlers, as a unilateral move to improve Israel's security and fend off international peace initiatives that would likely call for further Israeli concessions.

Palestinians are uncomfortable with Sharon's plan. They complain that even after the pullout, Israel would maintain control of crossing points. Also, Sharon has said one object is to strengthen Israel's hold on its main West Bank settlement blocs. Palestinians demand removal of all the settlements.

Jewish extremists on Wednesday also clashed with both Israeli security forces and Palestinian civilians, severely wounding a Palestinian. Settlers and soldiers also clashed over the weekend.

"In the past day there has been another serious escalation of extremist activity," an army statement said. "There is intelligence information that more extremist groups are moving toward the Gaza Strip with the intention of strengthening their friends and to escalate the provocative acts."

The army sealed the Jewish settlements, preventing residents from traveling between the towns.

Residents protested against the closure of the Gaza Strip. But as soon as the closure was announced, at least one bus of right-wing activists left Jerusalem for Gaza, reports The Jerusalem Post, with more expected. Other extremists abandoned their vehicles near police roadblocks and hiked across Negev orchards in order to bypass the checkpoints.

In an interview published Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he ordered police to crack down on the extremists.

"This bothers me exceptionally. This is an act of savagery, vulgarity and irresponsibility," Sharon told the Haaretz daily. "The country's citizens must understand this danger, and every measure must be taken to end this rampaging."

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