- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

TEL AVIV — The army announced new steps yesterday to thwart any settler resistance to withdrawal plans, and thousands of demonstrators jammed downtown Tel Aviv to back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s orders for a pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

The demonstrations, seeking to counter a recent string of large protests by opponents of the withdrawal, took place as military officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Israelis would be barred from moving to West Bank settlements slated for evacuation. The army, in an order issued late last week, banned Israelis from relocating to Gaza.

About 9,000 Jewish settlers are to be uprooted from their homes in the withdrawal, beginning in late July. It involves all of the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements.

Settler leaders have called for mass resistance and pledged to bring in tens of thousands of supporters to complicate the army’s mission. In the past week alone, settlers staged a large prayer gathering at a Gaza settlement and blocked traffic on Tel Aviv’s main highway.

Police said about 10,000 people joined yesterday’s rally, which closed off several normally busy roads in the center of Tel Aviv. Organizers said as many as 50,000 people turned out.

Hundreds of young activists chanted songs, and many young families and senior citizens were among the participants.

Yoav Lorch, 51, of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, said he came with his wife and 8-year-old daughter to show support for the government and send a message to the settlers.

“We have a small minority [the settlers] that doesn’t really care about the majority or the other side, or even the suffering of the soldiers who have to protect them,” Mr. Lorch said.

Battling fierce opposition within his own Likud Party, Mr. Sharon has managed to win parliamentary approval for the withdrawal, but faces one last obstacle. If his 2005 budget isn’t approved by the end of the month, the government would automatically collapse, forcing new elections and putting the withdrawal into doubt.

While settler leaders have called for peaceful resistance to the withdrawal, security officials have grown concerned that opposition could turn violent if the budget is approved.

Stepping up its preparations, the army on Friday banned all Israelis from moving to Gaza, effective immediately. Military officials said the order would be extended to the four West Bank settlements today.

Despite the ban, Effie Eitam, a hard-line lawmaker, announced he planned to move his family to the Gaza Strip, Israeli media reported. Mr. Eitam said he had changed his address last week, before the army order went into effect.

As part of complex moves toward peace in the region, an Israeli television station reported yesterday that Israel and Morocco would renew diplomatic relations next month, ending a freeze during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

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