OFAKIM, Israel, Aug 4 (Reuters) - Thousands of Israeli rightists suspended a march on Gaza settlements on Thursday after security forces blocked their path to prevent them from disrupting a planned pullout from the occupied territory.
Demonstrators who had been halted by police and soldiers as they surged out of Ofakim in southern Israel turned back toward the town just after dawn, and settler leaders said they would rest and decide what to do next.
Small bands of protesters had managed to slip past the massive cordon of security forces overnight, and police said they had arrested more than 200 people near roadblocks at Israel's border with the fenced-in Gaza Strip.
It was the latest attempt by settlers and their supporters to thwart Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip starting on Aug. 17 in what he has called "disengagement" from conflict with Palestinians.
A rally in Ofakim on Wednesday night was followed by a march by an estimated 10,000 protesters who were stopped by thousands of police and soldiers on a road just outside the town, which lies 20 km (12 miles) from Gaza.
Many of the marchers, bearing the orange standard of the main Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif, sat on the road and chanted religious anthems as security forces looked on warily.
After hours of negotiations, an agreement was reached to end the standoff. "Given the massive (security) forces deployed here, we have taken the decision to return (to Ofakim)," settler leader Tzvi Bar Hai said. "The struggle will continue but we are moving back to rest."
Polls show most Israelis support the planned withdrawal from Gaza and a small pocket of the occupied West Bank, but opponents say it would betray Jewish biblical claims to the land and reward a nearly five-year-old Palestinian uprising.
Palestinians welcome any Israeli pullout but fear Sharon is trading Gaza for a permanent hold on much of the West Bank.
The evacuation, which Washington sees as a possible springboard to renewed peace talks, would mark Israel's first removal of settlements from territory Palestinians want for a state.
The pullout will affect 9,000 settlers, four percent of the 240,000 Jewish settlers living in blocs in the Gaza and West Bank -- home to 3.8 million Palestinians. The World Court has branded all the settlements illegal, but Israel disputes this.
Security commanders had vowed to prevent the mass march from reaching Gush Katif and threatening the withdrawal plan. Some 17,000 police and soldiers had been deployed in the area.
"We are not looking for a fight, only to voice our outcry," said Benzi Lieberman, a leader of the YESHA settler council.
The government banned non-residents from passing through the Kissufim border crossing into Gaza a month ago to halt an influx of radical Jews bent on scuttling the pullout. That prompted a rash of infiltrations into the territory by ultranationalists.
The protest may be the last attempt to foil the removal of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank.
YESHA called off a similar march last month after police penned protesters in the desert for three days. Some Israelis believe the settlers have given up on keeping Gaza but want to raise a storm that will prevent further West Bank withdrawals.
Sharon has said Israel must part with Gaza, where 8,500 settlers live sealed off from 1.4 million Palestinians, for the Jewish state's own security and because it has no chance of keeping it in any future peace deal.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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