Israel + 1 more

OPT: Gaza withdrawal protests paralyse Israel

By Jonathan Saul

JERUSALEM, May 16 (Reuters) - Thousands of Jewish ultranationalists, some setting tyres ablaze, some lying in front of cars, paralysed Israel's rush hour traffic on Monday in the biggest such protest against abandoning settlements in Gaza.

Settlers and their supporters have vowed to bring Israel to a halt in the run-up to the withdrawals planned for August, the first from settlements on land that they see as a biblical birthright and Palestinians want for a state.

Police arrested 292 protesters who blocked roads and scuffled with police at road junctions as Israelis headed home from work, angering motorists caught in traffic jams.

Girls, some not yet in their teens, darted into the traffic and lay down in front of cars. Protesters linked arms to block roads before police pulled them away.

Police estimated that some 3,000 demonstrators took part in the protests across the country.

"This is our struggle against fascism," shouted protesters on the main road from Jerusalem, where hundreds gathered.

"Jews do not expel other Jews," chanted others.

Six officers were hurt and one demonstrator was injured by a burning tyre, a police spokeswoman said.

Polls show most Israelis support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to dismantle all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank -- evacuating around 9,000 settlers -- as a way to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians.

The plan is backed by Western countries as a step to revive Middle East peacemaking. Palestinians welcome the withdrawal, though fear it may be a ruse to keep much bigger settlements in the West Bank. Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.

After more than a year of battling far-right opponents who were once his allies, Sharon has cleared all legislative obstacles to carrying out the withdrawals.

But the settlers have vowed to do all they can peacefully to prevent evacuations.

Demonstrators have previously blocked roads with burning tyres, but they have generally been moved on by the police before causing too much disruption.

Authorities released without charge five Jews they had suspected of planning to fire an anti-tank missile at a Muslim holy place in Jerusalem, the Justice Ministry said on Monday.

The men, described by police as extremists without the means to acquire a missile or the expertise to fire one, had hoped an attack on al-Haram el-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, would spark violence and stop the planned pullout, police said.

A Justice Ministry official said prosecutors had weighed charging the group with conspiracy to commit a crime but decided such a case would not hold up in court.

The men were released more than a month ago due to lack of evidence, officials said. Their lawyer said the group fell victim to a sting operation by a security agent.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Megan Goldin)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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