Israel seals Gaza settlements, sets deadline


Israel began its Gaza pullout this morning by sealing off access to Jewish settlements in the occupied territory and giving settlers a 48-hour deadline to leave or be removed.

Settlers, some swaying in prayer, blocked entrances to several settlements with makeshift barricades in a bid to prevent security forces deploying to move them by the Wednesday deadline.

Eviction notices to the 9,000 settlers in all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank went into effect at midnight on Sunday.

The pullout, claimed by Palestinian militants as a victory and decried by Israeli opponents as a surrender to violence, will mark the first evacuation of Jewish settlements from land Palestinians want for a state.

Under floodlights after midnight at the Kissufim Crossing on the Gaza border leading to the Gush Katif settlement bloc, the army lowered a gate with a red sign that declared: "Stop. Entry into the Gaza Strip and presence there is forbidden by law!"

Along a side road, a stream of settlers and trucks loaded with belongings left the Gaza settlements to comply with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians.

Heading in the opposite direction, some 50 military vehicles, including jeeps, ambulances and buses carrying police and soldiers, drove into the Gaza Strip.

By rare agreement with Israel, 7,500 Palestinian security men in Gaza moved into position on the outskirts of the fortified settlements to ward off possible militant attacks.

Early on Monday one makeshift rocket slammed into a garden in the Neve Dekalim settlement and another hit the Gadid enclave but caused no casualties. Palestinian militants have largely observed a truce agreed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel in February.