June 29, 2005

Rightist Jews, Palestinians clash in Gaza

By Yoni Weizman

AL-MAWASI, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Israeli troops onWednesday fired in the air to quell clashes betweenPalestinians and far-right Jews who seized a new outpost inGaza to obstruct Israel's planned withdrawal from the occupiedterritory.

In Israel, police used water cannon to scatter Jewishultranationalists with children sitting on the main highwayentering Jerusalem as part of an effort by anti-pulloutprotesters to block traffic around the country.

The violence in Gaza, whose 8,500 Jewish settlers thegovernment plans to evacuate, erupted as soldiers swept in toarrest nine Jewish settler youths for earlier stone-throwingassaults on Palestinian inhabitants.

Four Palestinians were injured, one a teenager felled by arock thrown from close range by a settler, along with onesettler and one soldier in the clash in the Palestiniandistrict of al-Mawasi adjoining the Gush Katif settlement.

A soldier crouched to shield the seriously hurt Palestinianteenager from a settler crowd nearby, but there was no move todetain his attacker. The young Palestinian was later taken byambulance to Khan Younis in Palestinian-administered Gaza.

The nine arrested youths, part of a recent influx into GushKatif of hardline settlers from the West Bank, were dragged bysoldiers kicking and screaming from the three-storey building.

"Mohammed is a pig," read graffiti daubed by Jewishsquatters on a house wall. A yellow flag of the outlawedanti-Arab group Kach waved from its roof.

Ultranationalists grabbed two vacant houses in al-Mawasiafter scuffling with soldiers on Sunday in a failed bid toprevent them razing other empty housing that rightists intendedto refurbish as bastions of resistance to the evacuation.

They are part of a spiralling campaign against PrimeMinister Ariel Sharon's move to scrap all 21 Jewish enclaves inGaza and four in the northern West Bank starting in mid-Augustto "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians.

U.S.-led mediators hope the pullout, approved by Israel'sparliament, will jump-start a stalled "road map" peace processtoward a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

But far-right Jewish opposition and a recent deteriorationin a flimsy four-month-old ceasefire between Israel andPalestinian militants could disrupt the pullout.


Aside from the Jerusalem area, rightists stopped traffic inTel Aviv, at intersections in central Israel and near thenorthern city of Safed. Police moved in to wrestle aside thereligious protesters, who were shouting "Jews don't expelJews!"

Earlier, anti-pullout activists placed spikes and oil on amajor Israeli highway, snarling traffic, slashing tyres of atleast 20 cars and raising fears of a sabotage campaign toscuttle the withdrawal.

Sharon said far-right foes of his plan were "a fellowshipof thugs" but promised that law-enforcement bodies would stampout their "wild behavior."

A senior police commander said several Jewishultranationalists had been put in preventive detention onsuspicion of planning sabotage of public works.

"We have information, verified in recent days after wecarried out the arrests, that there is an intention to carryout attacks on infrastructure, and that is a very dangerousmatter," police intelligence chief Yaacov Peleg told ArmyRadio.

Mainstream settlement leaders have called for passiveprotests only, declining to endorse illegal acts likeblockades.

"We, of course, are opposed to all sorts of violence," saidEmily Amrusy, spokeswoman for Yesha, the main settler council.

Polls have long shown a majority support Sharon's blueprintto defuse 4-1/2 years of fighting with Palestinians, butpopular support has been declining for weeks.

A new survey found 48 percent of Israeli Jews backing thepullouts and 41 percent opposed -- a drop in support pollstersattribute to concern over increasing ceasefire violations andexasperation with the controversy over the withdrawal.

Rightists call the disengagement plan a betrayal of Jewishclaims on biblical land and a recipe for more violence byIslamic factions that have led the Palestinian uprising.

Palestinians welcome any Israeli withdrawals from landsoccupied in the 1967 war. But they suspect Sharon intends toleave Gaza mainly in order to cement Israel's hold on muchlarger settlements in the West Bank.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Allyn Fisher-Ilan,Steven Scheer and Nidal al-Mughrabi)