KFAR MAIMON, Israel — Days of clashes between anti-disengagement protesters and Israeli police and soldiers ended in an uneasy standoff at midweek, with protesters vowing to continue an illegal march toward Gaza that police just as firmly vowed to prevent.
Some 20,000 protesters set out Monday from the Negev town of Netivot, aiming to reach the Gaza border by Wednesday and continue marching to the Gush Katif settlement bloc. The Gaza settlements were declared a closed military zone this month, open only to residents.
The march was stopped Monday night at a dusty farming village, where protesters set up a camp that was ringed by troops. Negotiations between protest leaders and police continued throughout Tuesday and Wednesday without agreement.
Police said they were expecting violent clashes if the protesters insisted on approaching the border. Settler leaders and anti-disengagement rabbis leading the march said that the protesters didn’t intend to clash with security forces.
About 20,000 security forces personnel, some equipped with water hoses, were preparing to stop the estimated 7,000 demonstrators still holding out by Wednesday night. “I have no doubt there will be clashes,” a senior police official said. “They’re likely to be violent and ugly. The big question is how many of the thousands of protesters will decide to clash with police forces and try to break through to Gush Katif.”
Police said they didn’t expect the settler leaders to be able to control all the demonstrators.
The clashes between anti-disengagement protesters and Israeli troops came amid intense American and Palestinian efforts to maintain a fraying Israeli-Palestinian cease fire in advance of the pullout.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to travel to the region at the end of the week, in a visit hastily added to a planned Africa trip. Her goal was reportedly to press both sides to take steps to head off a new wave of violence.
“Obviously time is very important — that is why I thought it was a good thing to go out now,” Rice reportedly told journalists traveling with her to Senegal, where she arrived early Wednesday. “My job is to keep reminding people that they want to have this tied down by the time the withdrawal begins.”
The Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire declared in February in advance of the Gaza withdrawal was on the verge of collapsing last week, amid repeated Palestinian attacks on Israelis as well as Palestinian factional fighting.
After a Palestinian suicide bombing and rocket salvos claimed six lives in Israel last week, Prime Minister Sharon unleashed Israel’s most vigorous counterterrorism campaign in months. By Sunday, air strikes and army sharpshooters had killed nine suspected Palestinian terrorists. In a sign that Israel was prepared to launch a full-blown offensive, tanks and troops massed on the Gaza border. But with Rice due to visit at week’s end, Jerusalem made clear that diplomatic prospects had not dimmed completely.
Hamas agreed Tuesday to stop the rocket and mortar fire aimed at Israelis and to resume the February truce, according to Palestinian sources. During meetings with the Egyptian delegation to Gaza, Hamas also agreed to end its “battle of declarations” with the Palestinian Authority and to cease calling for the dismissal of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, the sources said.
Hamas officials emphasized that the organization’s commitment to maintain the truce was dependent on Israel’s actions and that Hamas considered itself free to “respond” to perceived truce violations by Israel. Palestinian mortar fire on Gush Katif settlements declined this week, and the western Negev was not targeted at all, for the first time since July 14.
Instead, most attention in the region was focused this week on the confrontation between the Israeli military and anti-disengagement protesters.
Leaders of the Yesha Settlers’ Council had vowed to assemble up to 100,000 protesters Monday night at Netivot for the two-day march to Gaza. Police blocked dozens of buses from leaving departure points around the country, and only 20,000 assembled at Netivot. The crowd had dwindled to about 7,000 by Wednesday, after repeated clashes with police and a day holed up at Kfar Maimon, a farming cooperative of several hundred.
Police cordoned off the entire village to prevent the activists from marching on Gaza. About 20 protesters were arrested Tuesday after scuffles with officers. Several people, including police, suffered light injuries.
Decision-makers feared that if they left the Gaza military zone open, anti-withdrawal activists would flood it, complicating the evacuation of Jewish settlements and military posts slated to begin in mid-August.
The decision to declare the march illegal was based on concerns that protesters would reach the fence surrounding Gaza and try to break through. Security officials privately warned that the sight of marchers crossing the border unhindered by troops might inspire similar attempts by Hezbollah in the north.
The government’s unusually strong-armed approach to the protest drew fire in Israel. Police were ordered to stop buses en route to Monday night’s demonstration in Netivot, and they threatened to confiscate bus drivers’ licenses — a move criticized not just by the right wing but also by civil liberties groups and others.
Roadblocks were set up across the region to stop activists from reaching Netivot. On Tuesday, thousands of activists spent the day in Kfar Maimon attending lectures by rabbis at the local synagogue and resting on air mattresses and sleeping bags in whatever shade they could find. Tents were set up across wide swaths of lawn.
A large number of the protesters were teenagers — boys in orange-knit yarmulkes, some with their ritual fringes hung over orange Gush Katif T-shirts, and girls in long skirts and sandals with orange ribbons streaming from their wrists.
“We are religious, so we have a strong connection to the land. We are against giving any part of it away to someone else,” said Smadar Yechezkel, 16, who hitchhiked here after police halted the bus in which she and fellow youth-movement members had planned to travel. “The people are the ones who should be deciding what happens. This gathering is to show the strength of the people,” Yechezkel said.
A Yesha Council leader, Pinchas Wallerstein, said he was determined to see the march toward Gaza take place. “As long as this terrible decision stands, there will be a constant presence to prevent this,” Wallerstein told Israel Army Radio, referring to the August withdrawal plan.
After several demonstrations against disengagement turned violent, settler officials speculated that the disturbances were the work of Shin Bet agents who are intent on discrediting the right wing. The precedent usually cited is Avishai Raviv, a Shin Bet agent planted among Israelis opposed to the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s.
But on Wednesday, during a meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin denied settler accusations that agents-provocateurs have been planted among far-right political groups. “These are baseless charges,” Diskin was quoted as telling Katsav. “There is no Shin Bet involvement, nor has there been, in inciting the recent anti-disengagement protests.”