Options were running out yesterday for thousands of Gaza-pullout opponents stranded in a shrinking protest camp in southern Israel and blocked by security forces from marching to the coastal strip to reinforce Jewish settlers there.
With the standoff in its third day, conflicting statements from pullout resisters reflected a wide discrepancy between the rhetoric of resolve and the practical fact that security forces were calling the tune.
Settler leaders were urging supporters to start marching toward Gaza, while at the same time acknowledging that flooding Gaza with protesters to tie up evacuation forces wasn't an option.
Twenty thousand soldiers and police were mobilized in southern Israel on Monday to prevent pullout opponents from defying a military ban on entering Gaza to help the 8,500 settlers there who have vowed to resist evacuation next month.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 protesters were camped out in the Kfar Maimon farming village near Gaza yesterday morning after spending two days and two nights in suffocating heat, estimated Nissim Shaham, commander of the Negev Desert police district.
Settler leaders issued a call for reinforcements yesterday, and said the march toward the main settlement bloc of Gush Katif would resume that evening.
"We are on our way to Gush Katif," Pinchas Wallerstein said. "It will take as long as it takes. We don't condone the use of violence against police and soldiers ... but we have patience and we will wait and wait and wait."
Dozens of newcomers walked several kilometers to bypass police roadblocks set up to prevent protesters from reaching the area.
Eliada Yisrael, 49, reached Kfar Maimon on Tuesday from his settlement home in the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
"The atmosphere here is good. People have hope," Yisrael said. "We want this to be legitimate without violent confrontations with the security forces, that's our aim."
But the head of the settlers' umbrella group, Bentsi Lieberman, suggested the crowd would continue to thin significantly.
"We will certainly leave a core to continue operational moves," Lieberman said. "The rest will leave to re-energize and go to their Sabbath dinners, and await orders from us so we will be able to see what effective measures to take going forward."
There were other signs the protesters were looking for a way out. Yitzhak Levy, a lawmaker and settler leader, said he had suggested to the protest leadership that they reach an agreement with police to march an additional 8km and go home, giving up on the goal of reaching Gaza.