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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 July 2005, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Battle of wills over Gaza pull-out

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Kfar Maimon, Israel

Scuffles between Israelis protesters and police in Kfar Maimon
Some protesters vowed to break the "government siege"
If you want to test the level of quiet determination in the settler community, come to Kfar Maimon.

It is hot here; too hot for hanging around outside. But that is what they are doing in their thousands - men, women, children, the elderly, many dressed in the trademark orange which has come to symbolise this protest movement.

Stallholders sell the kind of wristbands which have become popular in many countries. These are orange and they are doing a roaring trade here.

Kfar Maimon is not a settlement; it is inside the internationally recognised borders of Israel but it is home for now for thousands of settlers - possibly tens of thousands. They are here to voice their opposition to the Israeli government's plan to leave the Gaza Strip.

"[Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is almost a dictator," one man told me. "He's like Stalin or Pinochet. As a religious man, I must say to you that we trust to the last moment that it will be good".

But despite such words, you do get the feeling that many here know, unless there is a miracle, the pull-out will go ahead.

"We need to at least demonstrate against it even if it will not stop it. We need to demonstrate in a democratic way because we don't want to sit down in 20 or 30 years and think we didn't do anything," one man told me.

Fear of violence

Nearby a group of young religious men danced and sang in a circle, whirling around and around in the heat.

The protestors had planned to march from the town of Netivot, heading for a nearby checkpoint into the Gaza Strip. From there they planned to head for the Jewish settlement inside Gaza.

That would break the "government siege" of the Gaza settlements, one organiser told me.

Since last Thursday, the Israeli authorities have refused to allow non-resident Israelis into Gaza. They are worried that settlers might try to reinforce the 8,000 or so settlers who live there, making it more difficult to remove people when the withdrawal starts in a month's time.

The police though banned the march and the protests, saying they feared violence would break out.

Gradually throughout the day the protestors quietly and calmly defied the police.

Deep divisions

Negotiations were held and at midnight thousands marched through the police lines to an overnight encampment. Among them, at the late hour, a large number of children. One father pushed a cart with four sleeping youngsters crashed out on it.

The protestors are clearly trying not just to signal their anger over the planned pullout. They also hope that by showing up in large numbers they might encourage more Israelis to join their struggle.

This is an issue which is already exposing deep divisions in Israeli society.

Many Israelis - even those who support the pullout - are worried about the future. What will happen after we leave Gaza, they ask. Will it make us safer?

So one tactic the settlers are using is to try to divide the security forces. When you try to ask the police here how they feel about the situation, they tell you they aren't allowed to talk; neither to the media nor especially the protestors.

There is a fear the settlers will try get the police and army to disobey orders. That has already happened in small numbers. If it grows, the Israeli authorities will have a problem on their hands.

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