Israelis Protest Gaza Withdrawal

Thousands of Israelis poured into the Gaza Strip's (search) main Jewish settlement bloc Wednesday to protest this summer's planned withdrawal from the area Israel occupied for 38 years, but the rally was marred by low turnout and a mortar attack.

A mortar shell fired Wednesday by Palestinian militants struck near a playground during the rally, slightly injuring an Israeli soldier with shrapnel. Organizers vowed to continue the protest meant as a show of support for settlers being uprooted from the area Israel has occupied for 38 years.

Gaza settler leaders initially said they expected 100,000 people to turn out for the daylong event. However, only about 20,000 people had arrived by afternoon, police said.

Many of the demonstrators were young families, taking time off from work and school during the Passover holiday vacation.

Emily Amrussi, a spokeswoman for the settlers, said after the rocket attack that the event would go on.

"Of course we are carrying on," she said. "This ... shows the connection between the Palestinian enemy and (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon because this is a rally against him."

During more than four years of fighting, militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells at the Gaza settlements, though the number of attacks has fallen sharply since a Feb. 8 cease-fire declaration.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) arrived Wednesday for a historic first visit to Israel by a Kremlin leader, hours after calling for a Mideast peace conference in Moscow this fall. The topics of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are expected to include proposed Russian missile sales to Syria and an expanded role for Russia in Mideast diplomacy.

Some settler leaders have expressed hope the protesters would stay in Gaza to resist the withdrawal. However, Avner Shimon, mayor of the Gaza settlements, said he expected the visitors to leave after Passover, which ends Saturday night.

"People are coming to enjoy themselves, see the place and hug us and to tell us they are with us. I estimate that nobody will remain when it is over," he told Israel Army Radio.

Early Wednesday, Israeli authorities closed the main crossing into the Gush Katif (search) bloc of settlements to private cars, allowing only buses through. The army also closed a main Palestinian road and took up positions on the roof of a nearby Palestinian factory to protect settlers.

Organizers were selling orange flags and T-shirts, symbols of opposition to the withdrawal, and a steady stream of people marched through the seaside settlement. Many carried orange balloons and wore shirts and hats with the slogan, "A Jew doesn't expel a Jew."

Neve Dekalim resident Sylvia Mazuz said the festive atmosphere was misleading.

"Our hearts are heavy," said Mazuz, 44, who has lived in the settlement for 14 years.

Mazuz, whose husband, four children and grandchildren live in the settlement, said she made no preparations for life after the withdrawal and remains hopeful the government will cancel the plan.

"We are waiting for salvation from God," she said.

Under the plan, Israel will withdraw from all 21 Gaza settlements as well as four small settlements in the West Bank. About 9,000 Jewish settlers are slated to be evacuated from their homes.

Sharon says the withdrawal will improve Israel's security while enabling him to cement Israeli control over large blocs of settlements in the West Bank (search). Since Sharon announced the plan, settlers have held a number of large rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Wednesday's rally was expected to be the largest protest inside Gaza so far.

"We want to create a sense in the public that this move is illegitimate," said Chaniel Nahari, who came to Wednesday's protest from his home in central Israel. "The government is caving in to terror and isn't achieving anything."

Nahari and his wife, Tovie, both teachers, said they plan to move to Gaza in about six weeks and will stay with friends throughout the withdrawal. They said they plan only passive resistance but conceded some extremists may use violence against Israeli troops carrying out the evacuation.

The withdrawal is scheduled to begin in late July, but the government is considering a delay until Aug. 15. A formal decision is expected next week.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search), meanwhile, said the Palestinian Authority (search) will establish a special court to examine property claims after the Israeli withdrawal. Palestinian officials estimate that more than 90 percent of land from which Israel will withdraw belongs to the Palestinian government, and the remainder is private property confiscated by Israel.

"No one is allowed to buy or sell any piece of land in the occupied settlements because this is illegal, and we are not going to recognize that," Qureia said Tuesday after a Cabinet meeting.

Although violence has dropped sharply since the truce declaration, Israeli security officials said Wednesday that Palestinian militants in the West Bank are planning a new wave of attacks after the withdrawal. Late Tuesday, Palestinian militants fired two Qassam rockets from Gaza toward the Israeli border town of Sderot (search).

Still, Israeli defense officials said they are prepared to hand over the West Bank town of Qalqiliya to Palestinian control as soon as next week. The handover would be an important step toward resuming security cooperation.

Separately, the army said it arrested two Palestinian teenagers trying to cross through a West Bank checkpoint with a homemade gun and explosives. The 14-year-old boys said they had been sent by militant groups, who have turned to women and teenagers to carry out attacks, believing they raise fewer suspicions among Israeli troops.