Israeli Settlers Plan to March Despite Gaza Closure

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

Jerusalem ( - Israeli settler leaders announced on Wednesday that they will go ahead with plans for a massive march on the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip next week, despite the government's announcement that the area would be closed to non-residents.

Communities in Gush Katif as well as four in the northern West Bank are slated for evacuation as part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, scheduled to begin in mid-August.

Anti-pullout activists have encouraged tens of thousands of people to come to those areas to make it difficult, if not impossible, for police and army troops to remove the 9,000 residents. Next week's march was part of the effort to plant thousands of Israelis in the settlements to help block the withdrawal.

In what appeared to be a pre-emptive move, Sharon signed an order, effective Wednesday, restricting non-residents' entry to the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria.

Sharon and senior ministers did so, based on the recommendation of security officials, Sharon's office said in a statement. A short time after Sharon signed the order, the head of the army in southern Israel, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, limited entry into all areas of the Gaza Strip.

No such order has yet been given for closing the northern West Bank.

There is only one entrance into Gush Katif from Israel - a two-lane road that has been the site of a number of terror attacks and is heavily guarded by the military.

Journalists are now required to get a special permit from the army for entry into Gaza.

Settler leaders reacted swiftly to the new restrictions, saying that their planned three-day march, due to start next Monday, would go ahead as scheduled.

March organizers said they have three guiding principles: The march must be large, non-violent, and bring people into the Gush Katif, said Ruthie Lieberman, a spokesperson for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria (West Bank) and Gaza, which is organizing the event.

A turnout of 200,000 marchers would send a message to the government, Lieberman said.

Sharon's spokesman Dr. Ra'anan Gissin said the closure order was not intended to stop the march, "but the developments that the march can create."

"Because of the flow of people into Gush Katif, [the government] decided to advance the day of the closure," Gissin said, adding that roadblocks and police will prevent marchers from getting through.

Although their goal is to get into Gush Katif, march organizers said that if 100,000 people are able to make it to the crossing point, they will still make their point that the government must change its mind about disengagement.

On Tuesday, the daily Ha'aretz reported that disengagement guidelines drawn up by the government specify that security forces may fire on anti-pullout activists if they feel their lives are in danger, similar to a policeman who is threatened by a criminal.

But Gissin said as long as marchers stay within the acceptable bounds of protest, "No one will shoot them. We're not talking about terrorists," Gissin added.

(Earlier on Wednesday, the army closed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing Palestinians from the territories from entering Israel. That order follows Tuesday's a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Netanya, in which four people were killed. In the past, Gush Katif residents have not been affected by such closures.)

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