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Israeli protesters blocked Thousands of police and soldiers prevent pullout opponents from marching to Gaza

Thousands of police and soldiers prevent pullout opponents from marching to Gaza

KFAR MAIMON, ISRAEL

uth Belostrovsky set out her sleeping bag under the clear, starry skies of the Negev desert last night, the 45-year-old said she was joining the mass protest against Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip not only to show solidarity with the Jewish settlers about to be forcibly evicted, but to protect her own home as well.

The stout Russian immigrant, along with her husband and 17-year-old son, was among thousands of right-wing activists whose planned solidarity march into Gaza was stalled for a second day in the desert by a thick wall of Israeli soldiers and police. Flummoxed but defiant, the protesters set up a tent camp in this village 15 kilometres west of Gaza yesterday, vowing to continue their demonstration until security forces allowed them to pass and continue on to Gush Katif, the largest settlement block in Gaza.

For the Belostrovskys this is a deeply personal fight. They fear that if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned withdrawal from the strip this summer goes ahead, it will clear the way for future pullouts from other Israeli outposts in the occupied Palestinian Territories. That, they fear, would eventually include their own residence just east of Jerusalem in Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

"We understand this is about our homes, too," the postdoctoral biochemistry student and member of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party said. "It's about the future of all of our territories because Sharon's policies are now the opposite of what they were when we elected him."

The standoff last night between the police and demonstrators looked set to continue for some time. Protest organizers were establishing a tent city in Kfar Maimon, organizing group prayers and singalongs. A long row of portable toilets was set up near the town centre and orange Popsicles -- in the colour adopted by the anti-withdrawal activists -- were handed out to help protesters beat the scorching 35-degree heat.

However, the would-be marchers seemed to have little chance of slipping by the 20,000 police and soldiers deployed to the area to prevent them from reaching Gaza. The government fears that if the protesters reach Gush Katif, they could make the withdrawal -- already expected to be a chaotic three-week stretch -- even more complicated.

What began as a show of solidarity by Israel's right-wing opposition has instead become a demonstration of the government's resolve to press ahead with its so-called "disengagement" from Gaza. "Ariel Sharon is not scared of 20,000 or 50,000 marching settlers," Vice-Premier Ehud Olmert said yesterday. Police allowed the protesters to set up camp Monday night in Kfar Maimon, then closed the trap yesterday morning by moving in to surround the tiny village, which was already enclosed by a chain-link fence with coiled barbed wire at the top. The village last night was ringed by khaki-clad soldiers with M-16 rifles, backed up by thousands of police, including some on horseback. A helicopter flew tight circles overhead, while four trucks mounted with water cannons waited nearby.

"This morning when I woke up and saw the soldiers around the camp it was very unpleasant," said Ms. Belostrovsky's 50-year-old husband, Arkady. "It reminded me of films from the Second World War."

Although the scene was largely peaceful yesterday, tensions briefly spiked after a group of protesters tried unsuccessfully to force their way past security forces. After a brief scuffle that resulted in several injuries, police made 18 arrests.

After that incident, the wind seemed to go out of a demonstration that organizers had originally hoped would draw 100,000 people and be the climax of a summer of opposition to the pullout plan.

Far fewer than that number made their way through a maze of police roadblocks set up Monday on the first day of the protest and yesterday, as the bright sun turned orange and then finally set, many protesters, particularly those with families, headed home. By last night, only a few thousand protesters remained in Kfar Maimon.

"I think I'm going to go home tomorrow. I don't think we're going to get anywhere," said a frustrated Baruch Malchikoff as he stretched out for a night of sleeping on the sand just metres from the lights and noise of the police perimeter.

The 61-year-old Ottawa native and retired Government of Canada patent examiner said he briefly moved into the Gaza Strip this summer before the illegal settlement he had joined was closed and all residents expelled.

Mr. Malchikoff, who speaks of Gaza's Mediterranean seafront with tears of awe welling in his eyes, said that even if this protest fails, he and other opponents would not stop fighting to derail the Gaza pullout.

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