GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip, July 13 (Reuters) - Israel sealed off all Jewish settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip on Wednesday to choke resistance to a planned withdrawal from the territory in mid-August.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, Israeli forces retook the city of Tulkarm in an offensive the army said was aimed at the Islamic Jihad group behind a suicide bombing that killed two teenage girls and two women in Israel on Tuesday.
Enraging settlers, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed an order closing Gaza's 21 settlements to non-residents after ultranationalists announced plans for a march that could have brought an influx of thousands of protesters next week.
Chanting "Jews don't expel Jews", scores of protesters, many of them children, blocked the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway until they were dispersed by police. There were several arrests.
As the indefinite entry ban went into effect, cars and trucks quickly backed up at a main crossing point between Israel and Gush Katif, Gaza's largest settlement bloc. Israeli drivers, demanding to be let through, waved identity cards at police.
A suspected anti-pullout protester was arrested after scuffling with bodyguards outside Sharon's office in Jerusalem, and the director-general of the Defence Ministry was mobbed by settlers while on a Gaza visit.
But rightist opponents of Sharon's plan, which he has described as "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians, pledged to step up demonstrations in Israel against the pullout plan.
Polls show most Israelis support the pullout plan. But its rightist opponents, many of whom claim a biblical birthright to Gaza and the occupied West Bank, say it is a gift to Palestinian militants who have spearheaded attacks during an uprising.
Palestinians fear the plan will give them tiny, impoverished Gaza, while Israel strengthens its hold on much bigger West Bank settlements that house most of the 240,000 settlers. More than 3.6 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza.
Settler spokesman Eran Sternberg accused Sharon of "laying siege" to fellow Jews and said the Israeli leader had "hit rock bottom from a moral standpoint".
The closure edict initially also applied to four isolated West Bank settlements due to be evacuated, but that restriction was lifted by the army.
"The Israel Defence Forces will operate a special permit office that will allow Israelis living in the Gaza Strip to file requests for entry for a predefined period of time for their guests (and) relatives," the army said in a statement.
It said the "Restricted Entry Order" was issued to prevent "the uncontrolled entry of extremist elements into the area and in light of efforts to organise a massive march in Gaza".
The closure will give about 9,000 settlers a taste of some of the military restrictions and bureaucracy endured by Palestinians living under occupation.
Rightist protests have included the blockade of highways and planting of fake bombs in train and bus stations.
In a further indication of dissent in the ranks over the pullout, five soldiers face disciplinary hearings after refusing to enforce the Gaza closure. Israel's army chief has said 30 troops have already been disciplined for such insubordination.
In Tulkarm, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian policeman in the city, which Israel handed to Palestinian security control four months ago as a peacemaking gesture. Witnesses said the shooting was unprovoked.
The army said the soldiers were returning fire.
"I instructed the security forces yesterday to intensify our operations and to strike as much as possible at the heads of the terrorist organisation, Islamic Jihad," Sharon told reporters.
Israeli officials said weeks ago that such assassinations, suspended after Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a ceasefire in February, would resume after a series of rocket attacks on Gaza settlements.
Islamic Jihad has distanced itself from the "calm" it declared with other militant groups. It said the attack in the Israeli city of Netanya, the first such bombing in five months, was in response to Israeli raids to arrest wanted militants.
Abbas called the bombing, carried out by an 18-year-old from a West Bank village under Israeli security control, "idiotic".
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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