Israeli troops block protest march to Gaza

Jewish demonstrators oppose withdrawal plan

July 19, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Blocking roads and stopping buses, Israeli police and soldiers thwarted a march yesterday by tens of thousands of opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli demonstrators had hoped to reach Jewish settlements in Gaza, flooding the communities with thousands of new residents and forcing the government to cancel or delay the withdrawal. But police declared the demonstration illegal before it began, barring buses from taking marchers to the rally and preventing their numbers from growing.

Still, more than 20,000 settlers and their supporters, according to Israeli news reports, arrived at the rally in the Israeli town of Netivot, about 15 miles east of Gaza.

Wearing orange T-shirts, hats and ribbons - the color that has come to symbolize opposition to the withdrawal - the demonstrators prayed, sang, and danced hand in hand while making final preparations to begin their march to Gaza, with or without police permission.

The march and Israeli authorities' efforts to block it were a dress rehearsal for the situation that settlers and Israeli officials expect to face when the pullout from Gaza begins next month.

Palestinian militants, meanwhile, continued to fire mortars and rockets at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and at Israeli towns, reminders of the threat such attacks could pose during the evacuation.

Over the weekend, Israel massed thousands of soldiers on the Gaza border, threatening to mount a major ground offensive against Palestinian militants if Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas failed to restrain them.

During the past week, Palestinian attacks have killed six Israelis - five died in a suicide bombing organized by Islamic Jihad and one in a Hamas rocket attack. Israel responded by arresting suspected militants and launching airstrikes in the West Bank and Gaza, killing seven Hamas militants.

Abbas said yesterday at a news conference in Gaza City that the truce can be saved through negotiations with Palestinian militant groups.

"I don't think that diplomacy has failed completely," said Abbas, according to the Associated Press. "We are still working very hard ... to get a full commitment to the truce now or pretty soon."

Israel plans to evacuate the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. Of the approximately 2,000 families that will be uprooted from their homes, fewer than 500 have made plans to leave voluntarily.

Israeli authorities are anxious to demonstrate their resolve in the face of well-organized opposition by hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters.

The Yesha settlers council, which represents all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, called on opponents of the withdrawal plan "to reach in any possible way, by car, by train by foot to Netivot."

Pinchas Wallerstein, a leader of the settlers council, told Israel Radio that the march would reach police barriers and that demonstrators would stay and protest as long as necessary to gain access to the Gaza settlements. The goal of the march is to reach Gaza by tomorrow.

"We are not going to clash with [Israel Defense Forces] ... or Israeli police," Wallerstein said. "We expect to march to Gush Katif, and, if we are blocked, that is where we will stand and demand to be allowed to go. One, two, 10 days, whatever is necessary."

Israeli police defended their strong actions as necessary to disperse an illegal demonstration designed to gain access to the Gaza settlement of Gush Katif, which the Israeli army has declared a closed military zone.

"When it became apparent that the participants would use this event as a platform to disrupt the evacuation by establishing a human block and attempting to enter Gush Katif, I decided to prohibit it," said Israel's police commissioner, Moshe Karadi.

For settlers and their supporters, the march was the largest effort yet to foil Sharon's disengagement plan.

Though march organizers have condemned violence against Israeli police or soldiers, they have been unable to control hundreds of young extremists who have blocked roads, padlocked schools, poured oil and nails on highways, and clashed with authorities.

Opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Israelis back Sharon's disengagement plan, although support has slipped in recent months as the date draws nearer.

Settler leaders were infuriated by police efforts to interfere with their march. Police stopped 50 buses filled with protesters from leaving Jewish settlements, leaving demonstrators stranded.

Police appeared yesterday to have the upper hand. In Jerusalem, hundreds of would-be demonstrators wandered near the entrance to the city, frustrated that they were unable to reach the demonstration.

Wearing walking shoes and outfitted with a backpack and bedroll, Etay Bitron, 30, a teacher from Jerusalem, appeared prepared for the Gaza march. But earlier in the day, police had stopped the bus that Bitron, his wife and three children had boarded and seized the keys and driver's license from its driver.

Unfazed, he took his family home and set out on his own. By late yesterday afternoon, however, he stood waiting with dozens of other marchers angry at their government but uncertain how they would express their feelings.

"This is not democratic," he said.

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