TEL AVIV, Israel – The army announced new steps Saturday to thwart settler resistance to withdrawal plans, and thousands of demonstrators jammed downtown Tel Aviv to back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's orders for a pullout from the Gaza Strip (search) and part of the West Bank (search).
The demonstration, seeking to counter a recent string of large protests by opponents of the withdrawal, took place as military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israelis would be barred from moving to West Bank settlements slated for evacuation. The army, in an order issued late last week, banned Israelis from relocating to Gaza.
About 9,000 Jewish settlers are to be uprooted from their homes in the withdrawal, beginning in late July. It involves all the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements.
Settler leaders have called for mass resistance and pledged to bring in tens of thousands of supporters. In the past week alone, settlers staged a large prayer gathering at a Gaza settlement and angrily blocked traffic on Tel Aviv's main highway.
Speaking at Saturday's rally, Yariv Openheimer (search), head of the pro-withdrawal Peace Now group, challenged the hardliners.
"Those who want, and are asking for, a civil war must know that we are all ready for battle, the battle for democracy, the battle for Zionism, the battle for education, the battle for the future of Israel."
Police said about 10,000 people joined Saturday night's rally, which closed off several normally busy roads in central Tel Aviv. Organizers said as many as 50,000 people turned out.
With 700 police looking on, the crowd marched through the area before gathering at a central square for speeches by several Israeli politicians.
Yoav Lorch, 51, of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, said he came with his wife and 8-year-old daughter to show support for the government and send a message to the settlers.
"We have a small minority (the settlers) that doesn't really care about the majority or the other side, or even the suffering of the soldiers who have to protect them," said Lorch.
Battling fierce opposition within his own Likud Party, Sharon has managed to win parliamentary approval for the withdrawal but faces one last obstacle. If his 2005 budget isn't approved by the end of the month, the government will automatically collapse, forcing new elections and putting the withdrawal into doubt.
Since the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian leader in January, Israeli-Palestinian violence has dropped sharply, with no fatalities so far registered during March.
In two violent incidents Sunday, however, three Israeli soldiers and one Palestinian were wounded.
The Palestinian was shot and critically wounded by an Israeli border policeman near Jerusalem after trying to steal a weapon from an Israeli checkpoint between Jerusalem and the nearby West Bank town of Bethlehem, Border Police spokesman Oren Goanias said.
Earlier Sunday, three Israeli soldiers were wounded in the West Bank, one critically, when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on them while they were escorting Israeli police searching for stolen cars. That attack was the first on Israeli forces since Palestinian militant groups announced their support for a cease-fire after meetings in Egypt on Thursday.
While settler leaders have called for peaceful resistance to the withdrawal, security officials have grown concerned that opposition could turn violent if the budget is approved.
Stepping up its preparations, the army on Friday banned all Israelis from moving to Gaza, effective immediately. Military officials said the order would be extended to the four West Bank settlements on Sunday.
Despite the ban, Effie Eitam, a hard-line lawmaker, announced he planned to move his family to the Gaza Strip, Israeli media reported. Eitam said he had changed his address last week, before the army order went into effect.
"So many people are in danger of being evicted from their homes and being estranged from Israeli society, as a public servant it is my place to be with them and support them," he told Israel Radio.
In further preparations, the army said it would begin removing nonessential equipment, such as food storage facilities, from Gaza in the next two weeks. Israeli officials said plans have already been drawn up to relocate all forces in Gaza to nearby bases in southern Israel.
As part of complex moves toward peace in the region, an Israeli television station reported on Saturday that Israel and Morocco would renew diplomatic relations next month, ending a freeze during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Citing an unnamed "senior Moroccan source," Channel Two TV said an agreement to renew ties was reached last week between Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres in Madrid. Both men were in the Spanish capital for ceremonies marking the first anniversary of train bombings there that killed 191 people.
The report said Peres would soon pay an official visit to Morocco. It added that initially Morocco would be represented in Israel by a charge d'affairs, one notch below an ambassador.
The two countries established relations at a similar level in the mid-1990s. But Morocco, along with Tunisia, broke formal ties after the September 2000 outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, although some commercial relations remain.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev could not confirm the report but said he was optimistic that a thaw could be near. "Israel would hope that Morocco will shortly be renewing relations," he said.
Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, also downgraded relations during the fighting. After a Feb. 8 Mideast summit in Egypt, where Israel and the Palestinians agreed to an informal cease-fire, Cairo and Amman resumed full ties and dispatched ambassadors to Israel.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has been in telephone contact with Moroccan Foreign Minister, Mohamed Benaissa, since the summit, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Despite the diplomatic chill, Shalom visited Rabat and met the king in September 2003.