Tue, Feb 01, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Settlers protest Gaza withdrawal

MASS MEETING A crowd of Jewish settlers and their supporters, estimated at 130,000, on Sunday rallied in Jerusalem against plans to leave Gaza settlements


Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters protested outside parliament against the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, saying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not have a mandate to dismantle settlements and must hold a national referendum.

During the rally, one of the largest in Jerusalem's history, demonstrators joined in a mass pledge to go to Gaza to try to disrupt the dismantling of settlements, set for this summer. However, the protest was unlikely to deter Sharon who stabilized his coalition, despite efforts of opponents to topple him.

"Ariel Sharon, you have no mandate to expel Jews," said Effie Eitam, a pro-settler lawmaker, to the crowd, estimated at about 130,000.

The settler protest came as a de-facto truce was taking hold and Israel was preparing to hand security control of West Bank towns to the Palestinians.

Palestinian police commanders said they were told to prepare to take control of four West Bank cities -- Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Tulkarem and Jericho -- tomorrow. However, Israeli officials said no steps would be taken ahead of a meeting of the Israeli Security Cabinet on Thursday.

Palestinian security officials said they were told by their Israeli counterparts that troops would take down some roadblocks ringing West Bank towns, rolling back security measures imposed after violence erupted in September 2000. Israeli forces reoccupied West Bank towns in April 2002, after a series of particularly bloody suicide bombings, but have pulled back to the outskirts of population centers in most areas since then.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has won a commitment from militant groups to stop attacks, and Israel has scaled back its military operations in return -- but no formal ceasefire declarations have been made.

In another significant move, an Israeli official said on Sunday that Israel would grant an amnesty to West Bank fugitives, ending its relentless search for dozens of militants suspected of carrying out or planning attacks. In four years of conflict, dozens have been killed in Israeli raids and many more arrested.

The amnesty would allow Abbas to fulfill a key campaign pledge made before he handily won a Jan. 9 election to replace the late Yasser Arafat -- that fugitives would be allowed to reintegrate into Palestinian society with no fear of Israeli reprisal.

Israel has long held the right to strike at militants, though Palestinians called the operations assassinations and human-rights groups condemned the practice.

Israel's army chief met yesterday morning with senior officers to discuss the scope and timing of a release of Palestinian prisoners, another key Palestinian demand, defense officials said.

Abbas wants some of the approximately 7,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons to be set free.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Sunday that although a release was acceptable to Israel in principle, prisoners who killed Israelis could not be freed in the near term. Mofaz left open the possibility that criteria could be eased in the future.

Abbas and Sharon were heading toward their first meeting since 2003, when Abbas was prime minister. Feb. 8 was emerging as the date for the summit, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to arrive in the region two days before.

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