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Thousands of Israelis Pour Into Gaza Strip

Associated Press | April 27, 2005

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip (AP) - Thousands of Israelis poured into the Gaza Strip's main Jewish settlement bloc Wednesday to protest this summer's planned withdrawal, show support for the settlers and bid farewell to the area Israel occupied for 38 years.

Gaza settler leaders said they expect at least 100,000 people, which would make it one of the largest demonstrations since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the pullout plan last year. Turnout was expected to be bolstered by warm weather and the Passover holiday, when schools are closed and many people are on vacation.

Some settler leaders have expressed hope that the protesters will stay in Gaza to resist the withdrawal. However, Avner Shimon, mayor of the Gaza settlements, said he expected the visitors to leave after Passover.

"People are coming to enjoy themselves, see the place and hug us and to tell us they are with us. I estimate that nobody will remain when it is over," he told Israel Army Radio.

Early Wednesday, the Israeli army closed the main crossing into the Gush Katif bloc of settlements to private cars, allowing only buses through. Army Radio said 1,500 buses were expected to reach Gush Katif.

Organizers were selling orange flags and T-shirts, symbols of opposition to the withdrawal.

A procession through Gaza's seaside settlement began at midmorning, and a steady stream of people marched through the area. Many carried orange balloons and wore shirts and hats saying "a Jew doesn't expel a Jew."

Neve Dekalim resident Sylvia Mazuz said the festive atmosphere was misleading. "Our hearts are heavy," said Mazuz, 44, who has lived in the settlement for 14 years.

Mazuz, whose husband, four children and grandchildren all live in the settlement, said she has made no preparations for life after withdrawal and remains hopeful that the government will cancel the plan.

"We are waiting for salvation from God," she said, adding that she would resist the evacuation order solely through peaceful means.

Under the plan, Israel will withdraw from all 21 Gaza settlements as well as four small settlements in the West Bank. About 9,000 Jewish settlers are slated to be evacuated from their homes.

Sharon says the withdrawal will improve Israel's security while enabling him to cement Israeli control over large blocs of settlements in the West Bank. Since Sharon announced the plan, settlers have held a number of large rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Wednesday's rally was expected to be the largest protest inside Gaza so far.

"We want to create a sense in the public that this move is illegitimate," said Chaniel Nahari, who came to Wednesday's protest from his home in central Israel. "The government is caving in to terror and isn't achieving anything."

Nahari and his wife, Tovie, both schoolteachers, said they plan on moving to Gaza in about six weeks and will stay with friends throughout the withdrawal. They said they plan only passive resistance, but conceded there may be some extremists who will use violence against Israeli troops carrying out the evacuation.

The withdrawal is currently scheduled to begin in late July. But the government is considering a three-week delay that would push back the plan until Aug. 15. A formal decision is expected next week.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, meanwhile, said the Palestinian Authority will establish a special court to examine property claims after the Israeli withdrawal. Palestinian officials estimate more than 90 percent of land from which Israel will withdraw belongs to the Palestinian government, and that the remainder is private property confiscated by Israel.

"No one is allowed to buy or sell any piece of land in the occupied settlements because this is illegal and we are not going to recognize that," Qureia said Tuesday after a Cabinet meeting.

Although there has been a sharp drop in violence since the truce declaration, Israeli security officials said Wednesday that Palestinian militants in the West Bank are planning a new wave of attacks after the Israeli withdrawal. Late Tuesday, Palestinian militants fired two Qassam rockets from Gaza toward the Israeli border town of Sderot.

Despite the warning, Israeli defense officials said they are prepared to hand over the West Bank town of Qalqiliya to Palestinian control as soon as next week. The handover would be an important step toward resuming security cooperation.

Qalqiliya is among five West Bank towns that Israel agreed to hand over to the Palestinians as part of the cease-fire. But after turning over control of two towns, Israel has frozen the process, accusing the Palestinians of not being tough enough against armed militants.

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