- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2005

TEL AVIV — Some 30,000 opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank embarked yesterday on a march toward Gaza’s Gush Katif settlement, defying police efforts to head off a demonstration declared illegal a day earlier.

Police stopped busloads of demonstrators from departing from cities around Israel, but others nevertheless reached the starting point in the southern Israeli city of Netivot — about 15 miles from Gaza.

Demonstrators then marched to a nearby campground to stay the night, setting up a showdown today with thousands of police and soldiers determined to prevent marchers from reaching settlements scheduled for evacuation.

The move to block the rally escalated tensions with protesters and drew pointed criticism from Israeli civil rights advocates. Israeli authorities feared the protesters would try to scuttle the planned evacuation of 8,500 settlers Aug. 17.

“The prime minister is trying to silence our protest movement because he’s noticed that our protest is working, and support for his plan is dropping,” said Shaul Goldstein, the deputy chair of the Yesha Council, the political leadership of West Bank and Gaza settlers. “We want to protest until, God forbid, there is an evacuation, or it will be prevented. We want to protest for a week, a month, or as long as it takes.”

The protest came as tensions eased in the Gaza Strip after a weekend of escalation that brought Israel to the brink of an offensive against Palestinian militants. Egyptian mediators met with representatives of Islamic militant groups in an effort to restore a five-month old calm.

Even so, some 15 mortar shells fell on Israeli targets in Gaza — settlements or military installations — but communities inside Israel were spared for the first time in five days, the newspaper Ha’aretz reported.

Israeli soldiers, meanwhile, fatally shot a 14-year old boy traveling in a car inside Gaza that the army said had run a roadblock. Military sources said soldiers fired warning shots, but that the incident is still being investigated.

Back in Israel, settler leaders had planned to galvanize tens of thousands of supporters to challenge army roadblocks sealing off the settlements from the rest of Israel for the last week. The expected confrontation was aimed at persuading lawmakers from the Israeli Knesset to vote tomorrow — in favor of a motion that would postpone the settlement evacuation.

Police on Sunday declared the march illegal, saying organizers refused to specify a route or how long it would continue. But yesterday morning it appeared as if law-enforcement officials would allow a kickoff rally to go ahead as planned, near the grave of a revered rabbi in Netivot.

By afternoon, however, police officers were boarding Netivot-bound buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, pulling passengers off the vehicles and forcing drivers to give up keys, according to Israeli television reports.

Israeli police commissioner Moshe Karady told reporters that police had attempted to pre-empt the march because they believed that demonstrators would use it as a launch pad to block the disengagement. Police had insisted that Israeli law permitted them to arrest citizens en route to breaking the law.

“The police can’t allow for violence to prevail in this country,” said Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra.

But civil rights advocates said that it was police who were in the wrong, making an overly sweeping use of power to enforce the law.

“Blocking the way of the buses is not legitimate. We looked in the relevant laws, and we didn’t find any that give the police the right to block the way,” said Yoav Loeff, a spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “There is a slippery slope. It’s not in one dramatic step democracy disappears, but these norms weaken it.”

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