Thousands in Tel Aviv Protest Gaza Withdrawal
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Renee Montagne is on vacation. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv last night to protest the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank. Leaders of Jewish settlers urged the crowd to clog the roads to Gaza in the coming days to prevent police and soldiers from getting there. Israeli security officials say they are ready for all contingencies and hope to complete the withdrawal ahead of schedule. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Jerusalem.
Peter, what was the mood at that demonstration? Are the settlers and their supporters still promising only passive resistance to the withdrawal?
PETER KENYON reporting:
Well, as far as the mood, it's being seen as kind of a last hurrah here, a show of solidarity with the settlers, really, more than a sign that anything can be done to stop this evacuation at this point. The settler leaders are, of course, urging more civil disobedience, on the theory that if the army's going to keep the protesters from getting to Gaza, then the protesters might as well try to keep the soldiers from getting there, either. But there have been no calls for violent resistance. The main danger seems to be from a loner or small group of radicals, according to officials.
WERTHEIMER: Now we have already seen one killing of Israeli Arabs carried out by a Jewish extremist in this run-up to the pullout. What are the police doing to be sure that more bloodshed does not happen?
KENYON: Well, that attack in an Arab Israeli village known as Shfaram prompted the army to launch a search for other soldiers who had left the army and taken their weapons with them. At least 42,000 police and soldiers, meanwhile, are going to be deployed for this withdrawal. Another 11,000 could be called on. That's a huge show of strength for an evacuation of something over 10,000 people from Gaza and the four West Bank settlements. The Jewish population in Gaza was around 8,000, but depending on who you ask, there are at least 2,000--possibly twice that many infiltrators have entered the Strip in recent days, hoping to stop this evacuation.
Now Israel is closing things off, declaring a nationwide state of emergency. By midnight Sunday, the main crossing into the Gush Katif area will be closed to all civilian traffic. Monday and Tuesday will then be kind of a grace period when settlers will be asked to leave voluntarily. Any remaining on the 17th will be physically removed.
WERTHEIMER: Which settlements go first? And how long is this process expected to take?
KENYON: It's not completely clear which go first. The security officials are deliberately holding that decision close to the vest and waiting to see what happens over the weekend. Three isolated Gaza settlements were the first to be approved by the Cabinet for evacuation, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be the first to go. There are four Gaza settlements in the northern part of the Strip, for instance, which include a large proportion of those settlers who are willing to leave voluntarily. One of them is virtually a ghost town today, we're told. So soldiers and police may decide to concentrate elsewhere in the beginning stages, but that decision will be made possibly as late as Tuesday night.
And as for how long it's going to take, this is scheduled to take four weeks, but some Israeli officials are already speculating that it could be done faster, possibly in three weeks, maybe even less. But then, of course, there'll be the demolition of homes and then other final details after the settlers are evacuated, and that will take several more weeks.
WERTHEIMER: What about the Palestinians that are inside Gaza? How are they planning to come in behind this pullout?
KENYON: That is a matter of rather tense speculation at the moment, and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority officials have been working to reach an agreement with Hamas and other armed factions; Hamas, in particular, very strong in Gaza. And they have agreed, it seems, to limit celebrations to the main population centers: Gaza City, Khan Yunis and Rafah. The PA is worried that Hamas may try to flood the zone, so to speak--flood these newly evacuated settlement areas with their supporters. And the PA has ordered that only their flags and PLO flags should be flown. Meanwhile, the armed Islamist factions are rejecting calls to disarm. They're vowing to continue their armed resistance. And since this pullout won't be complete until those buildings are demolished, there could be some tense moments if Palestinians try to swarm into the area.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Peter Kenyon, reporting from Jerusalem. Peter, thank you.
KENYON: You're welcome, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Background maps and complete coverage of Israel's impending pullout from Gaza are at npr.org.
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