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Israel: Police Face Protesters Over Gaza Disengagement

Israeli police were put on emergency alert today as thousands of Israeli protesters entrenched in the farming community of Kfar Maimon prepared to continue a banned march to the Gaza Strip. The march is part of a nationwide protest aimed at obstructing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to disengage Israel from occupied Gaza.

Prague, 19 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of protesters opposed to the upcoming withdrawal defied a police ban on yesterday, setting off in buses from the southern Israeli town of Netivot with a view to forcing their way into the Gaza Strip.

Later yesterday, police blocked the protesters in Kfar Maimon, a village 3 kilometers from Netivot. Security forces agreed to let the protesters spend the night there, but made it clear they would not let them reach Gush Katif, their final destination in the Gaza Strip.

Gush Katif is one of the 21 Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements slated for evacuation from 17 August as part of Sharon's disengagement plan. The Israeli Army has cordoned off all these settlements and barricaded the Kissufim checkpoint that leads into the Gaza Strip.

Israel has deployed 20,000 police and soldiers to keep the protesters out of Gaza. The protesters, who expect to number up to 100,000 in the coming days, say Israel's disengagement is giving up a biblical birthright to the land and rewarding the Palestinian uprising.

One demonstrator, who identified himself as Emi Rosenblum, told Reuters today that those who spent the night in Kfair Maimon are determined to cover the 16 kilometers that separate them from the Gaza Strip.

"This camp is a camp of people who decided they wanted to do a three-day march to protest the government's policies, the policy of expelling Jews from their land, from their homes, for having done absolutely nothing wrong. It's a perfectly democratic right of every person in a democratic country -- which is what we thought that we lived in, perhaps until yesterday -- to protest peacefully," Rosenblum said.

Right-wing parliamentarian Benny Eilon, who joined the protesters yesterday, slammed Sharon for ignoring opposition to his disengagement plan.

"It's a real shame for a real democracy. The prime minister behaves like [under] a tyranny," Eilon said.

Despite the protests, polls show most Israelis support Sharon's plan. The United States and other international mediators also back Israel's disengagement move, which they see as a possible springboard to revive stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

By contrast, many Palestinians fear Sharon's plan will leave them with just the Gaza Strip as a territory, while allowing Israel to tighten its grip on the West Bank.

Under Israel's disengagement move, only a handful of the 240,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank will be expelled from their homes.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmud Abbas is being widely criticized by Hamas and other radical groups for approving of Sharon's plans

Militants in Gaza have in the past few days fired rockets and mortar shells on Israeli targets. Last week, a suicide bomb attack in the northern Israeli city of Netanya left five Israelis dead.

These incidents prompted Israel to resume targeted killings of Hamas militants and mass troops along the Gaza border. The Israeli Army has also threatened large-scale retaliation in case the militant attacks continue.

Regional experts, however, believe an Israeli attack on Gaza is unlikely ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to the region later this week.

In a possible bid to defuse tension, the Israeli Army today said it was lifting traffic restrictions imposed on Gaza Palestinians amid the recent bombings.

Abbas in turn has vowed to do his utmost to prevent further attacks on Israeli targets. Last week, a gunfight between Palestinian security forces and radical Islamist militants left two teenage bystanders dead.

Fresh inter-Palestinian clashes were reported in Gaza today. Israeli soldiers also reportedly killed two armed Palestinian militants south of the West Bank city of Jenin.

(compiled from news agency reports)