Thousands of troops began taking up positions in southern Israel on Tuesday, preparing to thwart an attempt by thousands of opponents of the upcoming Gaza withdrawal to march into the Gaza settlements.
Jewish settler leaders vowed to march into the settlements, which have been declared a closed military zone and are off limits to nonresidents. Earlier, the settlers said they would not try to enter the Gaza settlements. They hope their efforts will sabotage the withdrawal.
Authorities said 15,000 police and soldiers would deploy in the south, forming human chains and erecting roadblocks throughout the area to prevent protesters from reaching Gaza.
Military officials said the soldiers would form human chains on the outskirts of town. Other forces were to take up positions in the nearby town of Netivot.
On Tuesday night, witnesses said militants fired three rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, where thousands of opponents of the planned Israeli withdrawal had gathered in a demonstration. Rescue workers said the rockets misfired, killing a 3-year old Palestinian boy in the northern Gaza Strip and injuring nine Palestinians.
Two of the rockets fell in Palestinian areas, and the third fell in an open field near Sderot.
Crowd to be limited to 5,000, authorities say
Early Tuesday, dozens of demonstrators — many wearing the orange color symbolizing opposition to the withdrawal — gathered in Sderot to set up a stage and hang banners. By late afternoon, about 200 protesters had arrived.
Thousands were expected to arrive later Tuesday in buses and cars, although authorities said they would limit the crowd to 5,000 people.
Police said the protesters would only be allowed to travel from Sderot to Ofakim — a town 17 miles from the Gaza Strip. The settlers said they would spend the night in Ofakim and march to the Gush Katif bloc of settlements on Wednesday.
"Overnight, we will prepare for our march to Gush Katif," Jewish settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein told Israel's Army Radio. "The only thing I am willing to promise ... is that the battle will be determined but nonviolent."
Last month, pullout opponents spent three nights in the Israeli town of Kfar Maimon in hopes of marching to Gaza, but gave up due to a massive police presence and intense heat.
Israel plans to pull out of all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four West Bank enclaves in mid-August, uprooting about 9,000 settlers from their homes. The government says more than half of the settlers have agreed to leave voluntarily.
Leaders fear withdrawal will go past Gaza
But some settler leaders and their supporters plan fierce resistance. More than 200,000 settlers live in other parts of the West Bank, and their leaders fear the Gaza pullout could be the beginning of further withdrawals from land claimed by the Palestinians. Observant Jews believe the West Bank is promised to them in the Bible.
Wallerstein said forcing the government to divert police and soldiers to prevent a march on the settlements is part of the settlers' attempt to sabotage the withdrawal and grab headlines.
Police spokesman Avi Zelba said the settlers had agreed not to enter Gaza and to leave Ofakim on Friday. But Yitzhak Levy, a pro-settler lawmaker, denied there was such an agreement, saying protesters would remain in Ofakim for as long as they deem necessary.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had barred protesters on Monday from gathering in Sderot, citing concerns that the city, which is just a few miles from Gaza, would be targeted by Palestinian rocket fire.
Israeli media reported that security forces also were concerned the thousands of protesters would march to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ranch, less than a mile away.
In the end, Zelba said police decided to limit the time of the demonstration and the number of people allowed to attend.
Israel, Palestinian military to coordinate
Despite the settler protests, Israeli military commanders will meet their Palestinian counterparts on Wednesday to continue efforts to coordinate the withdrawal, the Palestinian Interior Ministry said.
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that at a similar meeting Monday, the Israeli and Palestinian commanders agreed on a process for transferring power of abandoned Gaza settlements. The report said participants prefer each settlement to be handed over immediately after it is evacuated, not when the entire withdrawal is completed.
The report said an Israeli commander would hand the Palestinians a detailed portfolio about the settlements after the residents are fully evacuated, Yediot reported. Although most settlements were built at least 20 years ago, most Palestinians have never visited the Jewish enclaves, which are heavily guarded.
Meanwhile, an Israeli Jew, Kfir Levy, 25, was charged Tuesday with manslaughter for allegedly helping a Palestinian suicide bomber enter Israel last month. The Islamic Jihad attacker blew up in the coastal city of Netanya on July 12, killing five people.