June 30, 2005

Israeli army closes Gaza settlements to Israelis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli army declared the GazaStrip's Jewish settlements a closed military zone on Thursdayfollowing clashes with ultra-radical Jews resisting the plannedpullout from the territory, the army said.

A spokeswoman said the measure was temporary and followedviolence on Wednesday that involved settlers, security forcesand Palestinians.

"The security establishment has information that additionalgroups of extremists are intending to move to Gaza to carry outacts of provocation and an escalation," she said.

The army said the incidents "have the potential of causinga serious escalation that could effect the entire region."

The military also beefed up its presence in the main GushKatif settlement bloc after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said hehad ordered "every necessary step" to stop far-right Jews fromtrying to derail his pullout plan.

Sharon aims to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements and four of120 in the West Bank, a plan U.S.-led mediators hope willrevive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But he has beenconfronted with escalating protests by radical nationalists.

Inside the main Gush Katif settlement bloc, the armycordoned off a disused hotel which has been converted into abarricaded redoubt against evacuation by dozens of Jews, mainlyfrom hardline settlements in the occupied West Bank.