June 30, 2005

Israel shuts Gaza settlements to exclude rightists

By Dan Williams

GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Israel declared a closedmilitary zone in Jewish settlements in Gaza on Thursday andsealed off a hotel where radical Jews have holed up to resist aplanned August withdrawal from the occupied territory.

An army spokeswoman said the temporary closure was designedto halt an influx of ultranationalist opponents of the pulloutplan. The measure paved the way for raids to eject those tryingto set up anti-withdrawal bastions, such as the hotel.

The military presence in the Gush Katif settlement bloc wasbeefed up after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he had ordered"every necessary step" to stop far-right Jews from trying toderail his pullout plan through violence and road blockades.

Sharon aims to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in Gazaand four of 120 in the West Bank, a "disengagement" U.S.-ledmediators hope will foster a "road map" peace process betweenIsrael and Palestinians seeking statehood in occupied lands.

However, he has been confronted with escalating protests byradical nationalists, some from the banned anti-Arab groupKach.

Army officials said settlements were shut to non-residentsto put a stop to "extremist" violence that could inflame Gaza,where Palestinian militants have been generally observing aceasefire crucial to a smooth pullout sought by Sharon.

"In the past 24 hours factors opposing disengagement haveradicalized their activities in Gaza, including repeatedviolations of law and order as well as harm to Palestinianresidents of the area," an army statement said.

"(We have) information that further groups of Israelis maybe moving toward Gaza in an attempt to provide back-up for therioters," it said, referring to Kach activists ousted by troopson Wednesday from an outpost seized in a Palestinian district.

"A further escalation of this course of action by radicalelements could have grave effects on the (Gaza) region."

Once the radical threat was removed, the closure would belifted, it said. Israeli authorities are expected to seal offthe settlements again shortly before evacuations begin.


In Gush Katif on Thursday, the army cordoned off the PalmBeach Hotel, which has been turned into a barricaded redoubtagainst evacuation by scores of religious nationalists, mainlyfrom hardline Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Rightists protested loudly but did not try to preventsoldiers stringing barbed wire around the white stucco seasidecomplex, which stood vacant for years but has now been renamedMaoz Hayam ("Stronghold-by-the-Sea") by squatters inside.

The hotel perimeter was declared a closed military zone onWednesday night after a day of clashes between teenage Kachmembers and Palestinian villagers. A Palestinian youth wasbadly wounded when he was stoned at close range by Kach youths.

Soldiers then ousted dozens of Kach members squatting in athree-story house in the Palestinian district of al-Mawasiadjoining Gush Katif. The Jewish radicals had daubed graffitiand insults against the Prophet Mohammad on the house walls.

Many of the 8,500 resident Gush Katif settlers also opposeevacuation but their council welcomed the army closure.

"Efforts to bring huge numbers of (pullout) opponents toGush Katif is not our initiative. We will not accept a group ofhooligans who are damaging our cause, as shown by yesterday'sincidents in al-Mawasi," it said in a statement.

Sharon said he had ordered a security crackdown onultranationalists he described as "lawless gangs" engaged in "areign of terror" threatening Israel's democracy.

"The battle now is not over the disengagement (pullout)plan, but over the image and future of Israel," he said in aninterview with Haaretz newspaper. "Under no circumstances canwe allow a lawless gang to try to take control of life inIsrael."

Opinion polls have shown most Israelis favor Sharon's"disengagement" strategy. But rightists say it betrays Jewishclaims on biblical land and appeases Palestinian militancy thathas included many suicide bombings.

Palestinians welcome any Israeli withdrawals from landsoccupied in the 1967 Middle East war. However, they suspectSharon intends to leave Gaza mainly in order to cement Israel'shold on much larger settlements in the West Bank.

(Additional reporting by Megan Goldin and Matthew Tostevin)