Israeli Army Seals Jewish Gaza, Raids Palm Beach Hotel

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The Israeli army took the unprecedented step of sealing off the Gaza Strip as a closed military zone on Thursday following violent clashes with anti-disengagement protesters and raided an abandoned beachfront hotel that recently became a stronghold for anti-pullout resistance.

Israeli settler leaders were eager to distance themselves from the violence that took place on Wednesday.

Some 9,000 Israelis living in Jewish communities in the Gush Katif settlement bloc of the Gaza Strip and another 1,000 from four Jewish communities in the northern West Bank are scheduled to be uprooted from their homes starting in mid-August as part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

During the last few months, hundreds of Israelis have moved into Gush Katif communities in support of the residents there. Recently some Israelis took up residence in the abandoned Palm Beach Hotel there and renamed it Maoz Yam (Seaside Fortress).

Earlier this week, the army demolished 11 derelict bungalows near the hotel, which activists had begun to renovate in order to expand their efforts.

Jewish activists also seized an empty Palestinian-owned building near the Muawsi, which is a Palestinian enclave in the Gush Katif area. Then the situation turned ugly with stone-throwing incidents between Jews and Palestinians.

On Wednesday, the army rescued a Palestinian, who had also been throwing stones, from an angry Jewish mob, which had critically wounded him at the site. Also on Wednesday, hundreds of activists linked arms and blocked roads throughout the country in an attempt to promote their cause. Police struggled to keep the roads open.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the violence against the Palestinian "bothers me exceptionally." In an interview with the daily Ha'aretz, Sharon called it an act of "savagery, vulgarity and irresponsibility" and said that these were not the acts of the settlers but of extremists from outside Gaza.

The army closed the only entrance to the Gush Katif on Thursday morning, declaring it a closed military zone and allowing only those who could prove that they lived or worked there, provided essential services or had otherwise special permission to enter.

According to the army, they had received information that other activists were attempting to come to Gaza to reinforce the troublemakers.

The raid on the hotel came a few hours later and lasted less than hour. Police arrested three activists at the site. Religious and secular Jews, pensioners, young people and families had been residing there.

Residents of Gush Katif were caught off guard. The government had spoken about declaring the area a closed military zone following the Passover holiday in April, but that never materialized.

According to the army, this is only a temporary closure and not the one that the government had intended to order.

"They closed the whole community without letting us go or come," said Debbie Rosen, a resident of Gush Katif and spokesperson there. "They did not let anyone go to the pool and the beach. It's the season ... The teenagers are very angry," she said.

Regarding the violence, Rosen said that everyone is expressing his support for the settlers in different ways, but the residents of Gush Katif can't be responsible for everyone. The main reason for the protests is that the government wants to take the people out of their homes, she said.

But Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the large West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, said that settlement leaders, politicians and rabbis were meeting on Thursday evening to discuss the situation.

"We definitely reject those actions from yesterday," Goldstein said. "We have to separate between the lunatics who are damaging our struggle."

The struggle of the residents of Gush Katif and the settlers is "clear, clean and pure," said Goldstein. "It is a struggle against deportation."

In a declaration, rabbis from the Sharon region of central Israel said that while they were opposed to expelling the Jews from what they consider to be part of the ancient Land of Israel, their Biblical inheritance, they urged people to fight by "repentance, prayer and charity as the way to nullify evil decrees." (Translation provided by Independent Media Review and Analysis.)

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