Police pledged yesterday to stop more than 20,000 marchers, including teens with backpacks and parents pushing strollers, who were en route to the Gaza Strip to protest the summer's planned withdrawal -- in the tensest showdown yet between protesters and the security forces.
After a first day of marching and a night spent in sleeping bags and tents, demonstrators wrapped in white shawls held morning prayers yesterday at their roadside camp near the farming village of Kfar Maimon, about 16km east of the border with Gaza. Police were deployed nearby.
Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi said he would not permit marchers to move any closer to Gaza, setting the stage for possible confrontations later in the day. Police have declared the march illegal, and on Monday tried to stop buses with protesters at their departure points to thin the crowd, to little avail. Settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said the protest could last many days.
"As long as this terrible decision stands [to withdraw from Gaza], there will be a constant presence to prevent this," he told Israel Army Radio. He said the protesters would try to keep moving toward Gaza.
"Wherever they stop us ... we will stay," he said.
Marcher Avraham Ravi, 33, brought along his four children, ages one to eight. Yesterday morning, Ravi, his wife and children were sitting under a tree in Kfar Maimon, getting ready for the second day of the march.
"We walked all night. It wasn't easy with the kids," said Ravi, from the West Bank settlement of Tel Menashe. "But we tell them [the children] that this is to block those people who want to divide Israel."
The marchers want to reach the Jewish settlements in Gaza, and to participate in resisting the withdrawal, set to begin the middle of next month. Police last week declared the Jewish settlements a closed military area, meaning only residents can come and go. Police also beefed up barricades at the Kissufim crossing, the gateway from Israel to the Gaza settlements, adding rolls of barbed wire and concrete blocks.
In the West Bank, two Palestinian militants were killed in a gun battle with Israeli troops yesterday, the military said. Security forces surrounded the militants' hideout in the village of Yamoun, and after the firefight demolished the building with bulldozers. Residents identified the dead as members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group tied to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.
Israel has intensified arrest raids of militants after six Israelis were killed last week, five in a suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad and one in a rocket attack by Hamas. Militants also fired a barrage of rockets and mortar rounds at Israeli communities in and near Gaza. Israel carried out several air strikes last week, killing six Hamas militants.
The weekend violence left a five-month-old truce in tatters, but Israeli and Palestinian leaders said Monday they would try to stop the escalation. Abbas warned the militants that they must refrain from acting on their own.
"Nobody has the right to take the law into his own hands, nobody," he said Monday.
Yesterday, Hamas gunmen and Palestinian security forces exchanged fire after two Hamas-affiliated research companies were burned down, witnesses said. Six people were wounded in the shootout. During the fighting, Hamas activists burned two cars belonging to members of Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at another vehicle. Fatah activists burned a car belonging to Hamas.