Lefteris Pitarakis  /  AP
A demonstrator holds up a poster of Israeli lawmakers who oppose the Gaza disengagement plan, during a protest in the Israeli town of Ofakim Wednesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/3/2005 11:28:10 PM ET 2005-08-04T03:28:10

A major Palestinian militant group promised Wednesday it would fire no more rockets at Israelis with the approach of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this month, after a barrage accidentally killed a 5-year-old Palestinian boy.

The promise by Islamic Jihad came as international mediator James Wolfensohn called on Israel and the Palestinians to finish their coordination talks on issues like border crossings. The American had a series of meetings Wednesday with officials on both sides, but no agreements were reached.

Officials said Israel’s Cabinet will approve the removal of three isolated Gaza settlements in a vote Sunday. The settlements are Netzarim, southwest of Gaza City; Kfar Darom in central Gaza; and Morag in the north, the officials said. However, the government still could decide instead to remove three other settlements in northern Gaza in the first stage.

The pullout is to begin Aug. 17. The Cabinet has approved it several times, but it must vote separately for each group of settlements to be removed.

Islamic Jihad’s statement was a sign that the pullout might proceed calmly. The group and its larger militant counterpart, Hamas, denied firing three rockets toward an Israeli demonstration across the Gaza fence late Tuesday. One of the rockets hit a Gaza house and killed the child, wounding nine other people.

Maintaining calm during the Israeli exit is a vitally important goal for the Palestinian Authority in its desire to show that it can control the volatile territory. Militant groups, on the other hand, are trying to demonstrate that they are driving the Israelis out by force.

Israeli settlers face off with police
Earlier in the day, Israeli police blocked thousands of Jewish settlers and their sympathizers who tried to march on the Gaza Strip in a last-ditch bid to scupper the impending withdrawal.

Activists strode out of the southern Israeli town of Ofakim toward the main Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif, only to find themselves facing off with a massive police deployment.

At an order from ultranationalist rabbis leading the procession, the protesters sat down en masse on the road.

After milling at the southern town of Ofakim, where they had camped out after a peaceful demonstration on Tuesday and heard speeches by a slew of ultranationalist notables, activists set off westward on the first leg of a 12-mile hike to Gaza.

But awaiting the procession were 17,000 police and troops, under orders to bar access to the Gush Katif settlement bloc.

“Movement towards Gush Katif will not be permitted,” police operations chief Bentzi Ochayon said on Israel Radio.

Police worried about clashes
With Israel’s pullout from Gaza and a corner of the West Bank just days away, police were concerned at possible clashes with radical Jews, although the umbrella settler council YESHA said marchers would not try to fight their way into Gush Katif.

“Even if we don’t succeed in making it to Gush Katif, people will still know the depth of our faith. We will not raise our hand against police who are our family. If YESHA decides to call the march off, we’ll comply,” said activist Steve Ruddell.

Around 50 protesters were arrested on Wednesday after slipping past roadblocks and trying to breach the frontier point early in an apparent test of authorities’ resolve, police said.

Israelis could pass freely through the Kissufim crossing until a month ago when the government banned non-residents to halt an influx of radical Jews bent on scuttling the pullout.

It would be the first dismantling of Jewish enclaves on some of the territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians want for an independent state.

Final display of resistance?
The string of protests could be a final display of determination to foil a removal of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank due to begin Aug. 17.

Last month police thwarted a nationalist march on Gaza by trapping protesters for three days in a desert encampment.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says Israel has no chance of keeping Gaza, where 8,500 settlers live sealed off from 1.4 million Palestinians, in a future peace deal. He says Gaza has no further strategic or economic value to Israel.

Opponents of his plan to “disengage” from years of bloody conflict regard it as a betrayal of Jewish claims on Biblical land and a reward for Palestinian violence.

Polls show a narrow majority of Israelis favor the pullout. Palestinians welcome any withdrawal but fear the Gaza plan is a maneuver to strengthen Israel’s hold on the larger West Bank.

Shuffling settlements
“Disengagement” affects 9,000 settlers, fewer than 4 percent of the 240,000 — the vast majority in several West Bank settlement blocs — who live alongside 3.8 million Palestinians.

The World Court has branded all settlements illegal. The United States has said Israel could expect to keep some West Bank settlements under any eventual peace deal.

On Tuesday, a throng that police said numbered 25,000 and protest organizers 50,000 rallied peacefully in the Israeli town of Sderot, adjacent to Gaza’s fenced frontier.

“All of the land is ours,” read a banner in the crowd comprised of Orthodox Jews.

Just across the border, a rocket fired by Palestinian militants towards Sderot fell short and hit a house in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, killing a Palestinian boy of 6 and wounding seven people, local inhabitants said.

There was no acknowledgement of responsibility for the incident. One key faction, Islamic Jihad, said it had suspended rocket attacks on Israelis to ensure the pullout proceeded “in calm”. Israel says it will not withdraw under Palestinian fire.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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