July 1, 2005

Israeli opinion moves against Gaza pullout foes

By Matthew Tostevin

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli opinion has swung back infavor of evacuating the occupied Gaza Strip and away frompro-settler radicals who clashed with troops and blocked roadsduring a week of turmoil, a newspaper poll showed on Friday.

The poll in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth said supportfor Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan had risen from 53 to 62percent while opposition had fallen from 38 to 31 percentfollowing chaotic protests by ultranationalists.

Other recent polls showed support for leaving Gaza dippingbelow half. The pullout is due to begin in mid-August. It meansIsrael will for the first time uproot settlers from land wherePalestinians want a state.

"In a few days the settlers have succeeded in arousingfeelings of disgust that they did not manage to arouse fordecades," said newspaper commentator Sima Kadmon.

Pullout foes spread oil and nails on a motorway and sprangrush-hour protests that stopped commuters from getting home.

Images of young rightists in skullcaps tussling withsecurity forces, throwing stones and knocking unconscious aPalestinian teenager in the Gaza Strip also won little favor.

On Thursday, commandos stormed a hotel in Gaza to eject 150ultranationalists who had barricaded the building to resist theevacuation of settlements.

The aim of Sharon's plan is to "disengage" from conflict bywithdrawing Israel's soldiers and 8,000 settlers from Gaza,home to 1.3 million Palestinians.

Rightist opponents call it a betrayal of a biblical claimto land captured in the 1967 war and a capitulation to anuprising led by Palestinian militants since 2000.

A spokeswoman for the Yesha settler council brushed off thenewspaper poll. "One day they show one thing, and on anotherthey show something very different," said Emily Amrusi.


Following the return of calm on Friday, the army lifted aone-day military closure of Gaza settlements.

But at the same time, forces were ordered to stop pulloutopponents bringing in anything that could help them hunker downand fight removal -- including heavy equipment, buildingmaterials and household goods.

"This order is meant to prevent radical elements fromtransferring various types of infrastructure which may createfoundations for new tension," an army statement said.

Many of those holed up in the hotel, including women andchildren, had come from outside the 21 Gaza communities listedfor evacuation -- a lot of them from radical settlements in theWest Bank. Only four of 120 settlements there will be removed.

Uncertainty surrounding the pullout helped push the shekelto new 13-month lows this week. Financial analysts said marketsfear deeper turmoil that could derail the plan.

Sharon has vowed to carry out the pullout on time, butsettler supporters think a delay could help them.

The prime minister was expected to face another challengeat Sunday's cabinet meeting that could expose the deepdivisions at the top, when an opponent within his governmentplans to propose a three-month postponement.

The United States, traditionally the main broker of MiddleEast peace, sees the withdrawal as a move that could helprevive talks on a long stalled "road map" for peace andPalestinian statehood following a truce agreed by Israel andthe Palestinians in February.

Palestinians welcome the withdrawal, but fear Israel mayuse it to cement its hold on the West Bank settlements wheremost of some 240,000 settlers live.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis)