pullout opponents admitted defeat late yesterday in what they hoped would be their most formidable protest yet and began going home without completing a desert march to reinforce Jewish settlers.
At about midnight, after a third hot day of fruitless negotiations with police and the military, organizers told the crowd that buses awaited to take them home if they wanted to leave, signalling the end of the demonstration, though appeals were made for protesters to remain in the village of Kfar Maimon.
Bentsi Lieberman, head of the settlers' council, told more than 10,000 followers, surrounded by twice that many security forces, that their plans for a mass march were over.
Buses began taking some demonstrators away, while others hunkered down under the stars.
Earlier, thousands of settlers and their backers, most of them Orthodox Jewish teenagers and young adults with children, milled around the main gate of the village, 19 kilometres from Gaza, as their leaders and rabbis negotiated with police and soldiers.
As the protest was developing, the withdrawal opponents suffered another blow: The Israeli 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," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said.
As the vote came, the thousands of would-be marchers baked in the summer sun for the third day in Kfar Maimon.
The settlers, once a powerful political force, find themselves marginalized, said Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot. "They are emotionally very, very frustrated. They don't know what to do," he said.
"It seems unlikely" that opponents can stop the pullout, said one despondent protester, Ari Shames, 36. But he added that he hopes for a last-minute miracle.
In Gaza City, meanwhile, the governing 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 rival groups are vying for control of Gaza after Israel leaves.