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Gaza Pullout Protests Intensify

Jewish settlers clash with troops in Gush Katif, while demonstrators disrupt traffic across Israel seven weeks before the withdrawal.

June 30, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Jewish settlers cursed, prayed and wept as they brawled with Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, while a widening campaign of protests snarled traffic across Israel and led to more than 150 arrests.

Seven weeks before Israel is to begin uprooting 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four smaller ones in the northern West Bank, the efforts of opponents to block the withdrawal are taking on an increasingly violent edge.

Protesters for the first time scattered spikes and sloshed oil across the busy JerusalemTel Aviv highway during the morning commute. Hours later, Israeli police used water cannons against demonstrators, many of them teens and preteens, who darted out into traffic and tried to sit or lie in front of cars during the evening rush hour.

In a separate confrontation in the main Gaza settlement block of Gush Katif, Israeli troops arrested nine settlers who were suspected of attacking local Palestinians.

Two Palestinian teenagers were hospitalized in serious condition after being stoned by settlers.

Under a blazing sun, amid billowing clouds of dust kicked up by the melee, settlers screamed epithets such as "Nazis!" at young soldiers. When the troops began making arrests, settlers shoved and wrestled with them, or went limp and had to be carried away. At one point soldiers fired warning shots into the air.

For many Israelis, such scenes evoke a sense of deep foreboding over the prospect of bloodshed during the summer pullout. Polls have shown backing for the withdrawal slipping to less than 50%, though supporters still outnumber opponents.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged anew that the withdrawal would proceed and said protesters who resorted to vandalism and dangerous acts would be punished.

"We will not allow gangs and hooligans to drag the country downhill," the prime minister told a Cabinet meeting, according to Israeli media accounts.

Authorities deployed 6,000 police officers, some of them on horseback, to try to keep traffic moving during the evening efforts to block roads. Helicopters buzzed overhead.

Although no injuries were reported as a result of the scattering of spikes and oil on the roadway earlier, officials said they viewed the tactic with gravity.

"This could have caused a terrible accident," Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra told Israel Radio. The tactics damaged the tires of about 20 cars.

The settlers targeted in Wednesday's army raid in Gush Katif had taken over an abandoned house in the Palestinian village of Muwasi, which lies within the settlement block. Most of those holed up in the house, and in a nearby dilapidated hotel, are militants from the West Bank whose presence has made many of the more mainstream Gaza settlers uneasy.

The squatters for several days have been engaging in stone-throwing clashes with the Muwasi villagers, who had long enjoyed peaceable relations with the Gush Katif settlers.

They scrawled "Muhammad is a pig" on the wall of the house they took over, an apparent reference to the Islamic prophet, and flew the flag of the outlawed far-right Kach movement from the roof.

The day's conflict prompted fresh expressions of resolve from both settlers and Israeli officials. Most of the settlers believe that the land is their biblical birthright and that giving up Gaza will only serve to embolden Palestinian militants.

"This is only the beginning of much greater upheaval," a Gaza settler named Roi Avichai told Israel Radio. "What's done here isn't out of a desire for fighting and violence, but with the understanding that if the [withdrawal] is implemented, it will be a disaster for the entire country."

The military commander charged with overseeing the withdrawal warned that if violence continued to escalate, he would consider declaring Gaza a closed military zone well in advance of the pullout, even though such a step would cause hardship for the settlers.

"We are constantly reassessing the situation," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, who heads the army's southern command, told Israeli reporters. "If we feel we can't contain the situation, or that events are reaching levels we don't want to reach ... we would have no choice other than to seal off the strip."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz made a personal appeal to settlers to desist from any violence against police and troops.

"They have their grievances, which they should address to the political echelon and not raise a hand against the soldiers who are our sons and daughters," he said. "They shouldn't undermine the unity of the country."

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