Gaza pullout opponents admit defeat, abandon protest march and head for home
JERUSALEM – Opponents of Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip abandoned their efforts to stage a thousands-strong protest march in support of Jewish settlers late Wednesday. As the demonstrators headed home, the anti-pullout movement appeared increasingly chaotic with the withdrawal less than a month away.About midnight, at the end of a third hot day of fruitless negotiations with police and the military, organizers told the marchers that buses were waiting to take them home, marking an end of the demonstration.The protesters were seeking to block the abandonment of 21 settlements in the Gaza strip and removal of 8,500 settlers. The had marched to Kfar Maimon, 12 miles from the Gaza Strip, before Israeli security forces blocked their way and kept them penned up and away from the Gaza frontier.Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the unilateral disengagement from Gaza because of the cost in blood and turmoil caused by Israel’s maintenance of 8,500 Jewish settlers living among 1.4 million Palestinians.Sharon has faced an intense battle over the issue from hard-liners in his own Likud party and the settlers, whom he once supported. Israel won the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.In 1982, when Israel dismantled settlements in the Sinai Desert as part of a peace deal with Egypt, hundreds of hard-core ideologues flocked to the area, but failed to block the withdrawal. The entire Jewish settlement town of Yamit was razed. At the time, Sharon was defense minister.Bentsi Lieberman, settlers’ council head, told more than 10,000 followers – surrounded by twice that many security forces – that plans for a mass march were over.Buses began taking some demonstrators away, while others sat down under the stars.Earlier, the withdrawal opponents suffered another blow when parliament overwhelmingly rejected a last-ditch proposal to delay by a year the scheduled mid-August withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements.”It proved that the government, the Knesset and the public support the disengagement,” Sharon said.The settlers, once a powerful political force, find themselves marginalized, said Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Yediot Ahronot daily. “They are emotionally very, very frustrated. They don’t know what to do,” he told The Associated Press.”It seems unlikely” that opponents can stop the pullout, said one despondent protester, Ari Shames, 36.The protesters’ tactics have varied Some have sought to persuade police to disobey orders calling for them to remove settlers from their homes. Others have pushed and shoved police in the belief the government will only respond to strong-arm tactics.The contradictory and seemingly uncoordinated efforts are a far cry from the settlers’ previous attempts to defeat the pullout, which kicked into gear the minute Sharon announced his plan last year.Their campaign produced some astounding successes. They sent settlers and their children to make personal appeals to members of Sharon’s Likud Party, leading to the plan’s surprise defeat in a party referendum.Sharon pushed on anyway. When opponents persuaded nearly one-third of Likud lawmakers to rebel against Sharon and try to bring down their own government, he formed a new coalition with the moderate Labor Party. On Wednesday, parliament voted 69-41 against delaying the pullout for a year.The opponents had blanketed the country with demonstrations, posters and orange ribbons of protest, and the protests are credited with helping reduce public backing for the pullout – though more than half the country still supports it, according to recent polls.In Gaza City, meanwhile, the ruling Fatah party and the opposition Hamas said their armed confrontation of several days is over, but Egyptian mediators said they would stay until after the Israeli pullout to make sure internal fighting does not flare up.The two rivals are vying for control of Gaza after Israel leaves. Early Wednesday, the sides announced an agreement to take their gunmen off the streets and restore calm. A few hours later, gunmen opened fire on the homes of Palestinian police chief Rashid Abu Shbak and Fatah leader Abdullah Franji. No one was hurt.Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, called on Hamas members to show restraint. Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a Fatah leader and Cabinet minister, said the situation was under control.Egypt has played a key role in mediating between rival factions. In an effort to ensure a smooth handover from Israel to the Palestinians, Egypt will send army officers and post one in each Palestinian security unit taking control of areas Israel evacuates, an Egyptian official said. The officers are to arrive this week, he said.