Empty Palm Beach Hotel in Gaza after Israeli commando raid today (WND photo)

GANEI TAL, Gaza – In what many are calling a dress rehearsal for this summer’s scheduled evacuation of Jewish communities here, the Gaza Strip today was declared a closed military zone as Israeli commandos stormed a hotel housing anti-withdrawal activists, and Palestinian terrorists fired mortar shells and rockets at Jewish towns.

Meanwhile, scores of protesters are rushing to Jewish Gaza by cars, buses and in some cases on foot in spite of army roadblocks intended to stop them.

Israel’s defense ministry announced this morning it was immediately imposing a closure on the Gaza Strip, prompting fears among Gaza’s Jewish residents of an impending large-scale military operation. The army said the closure was in response to recent “provocations by right-wing extremists,” and was meant to prevent activists from flocking to the area and attempting to stop the Gaza evacuation, scheduled for Aug. 15.

Hours later, Israeli soldiers, police commando units and border guards stormed the Palm Beach Hotel – a seafront building alongside Gush Katif, the largest slate of Gaza Jewish communities – and forcibly evicted its occupants. Anti-withdrawal activists, including a few Israel accuses of inciting violence, had taken up residence in the hotel in recent months.

Some 2,000 soldiers and policemen went room-to-room throughout the hotel to chase out the residents, many of whom scurried in different directions attempting to elude capture. Israelis watched live on television as soldiers burst down doors and dragged out hotel residents who were loaded kicking and screaming onto waiting police buses.

The entire operation lasted only two hours. Soldiers had expected the hotel residents to put up fierce resistance. There were no reports of casualties.

Evacuated residents, some of whom were bused to the Gaza entrance, told reporters they had no where to go.

“My home was the hotel. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said one woman.

Many of the hotel’s occupants were not Gaza residents but protesters from other Israeli towns who flocked to the hotel in solidarity with Gush Katif residents.

Some occupants were involved in violent confrontations with Palestinians the past few days. Seven hotel residents were arrested yesterday in a rock-throwing incident with local Arabs, although according to the Jewish activists, the Palestinians threw rocks first.

“The Jewish communities in Gush Katif have nothing to do with the hotel residents. They are up to no good. We’re not supporting their actions,” Katif spokeswoman Debbie Rosen told WND.

Today’s military closure of Gaza is temporary, the army said in a statement. It denied the closure was related to any early start of the Aug. 15 evacuation.

The statement read: “In light of [radicalized anti-withdrawal activities in Gaza] the GOC Southern Command, Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel, signed an order regarding a temporary limitation of entrance and presence in the Gaza Strip. … The IDF and the Israeli Police forces plan to act in the near future in order to restore calm in the area. Upon completion of this activity, the order limiting entry to the area will be removed.”

Entry to credentialed journalists and Gush Katif residents still was permitted as of this afternoon.

Several Katif towns – including Neve Dekalim, the largest community – were placed under additional closures, with residents barred from leaving even to drive to another Katif community.

A senior army source told WND the closure orders may be lifted within 24-hours and were only imposed for today’s hotel evacuation, but residents were skeptical.

“We’re monitoring the situation,” a Katif leader told WND. “If the closure was to get the residents out of the hotel, that is one thing. If it’s anything more, we will act accordingly.”

Meanwhile, scores of anti-withdrawal protesters now are attempting to flock to the Gaza Strip after announcements from activists called for protesters to stream to the area.

Traffic leading here was backed up for miles as makeshift army blockades monitored cars and turned away drivers they suspected were transporting activists.

Several buses of protesters reportedly have departed Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for Gush Katif, although it was unclear how they would get in.

Eyewitnesses told WND that protesters on one bus that was turned away at the Kissufim Junction, the main checkpoint that leads to Gush Katif, exited the bus and attempted to hike through fields to get into Gaza’s Jewish communities. The hikers, sporting orange ribbons and t-shirts – the color theme of the anti-withdrawal campaign – were halted by army trucks.

In the midst of all the mayhem, Palestinian terrorists fired rockets and shells at Gush Katif communities, highlighting fears Hamas or Islamic Jihad will fire on residents during this summer’s withdrawal.

Hamas said in a statement that “a Qassam rocket was fired and exploded inside the Jewish settlement of Naveh Dekalim.”

Security officials in Gaza told WND several mortar shells or rockets were fired at communities, causing damage to one house but no injuries.

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