KFAR MAIMON, Israel – Options were running out Wednesday for thousands of Gaza (search) pullout opponents stranded in a shrinking protest camp in southern Israel and blocked by security forces from marching to the coastal strip to reinforce Jewish settlers there.
With the standoff in its third day, conflicting statements from pullout resisters reflected a wide discrepancy between the rhetoric of resolve and the practical fact that security forces, not settlers, were calling the shots.
Settler leaders were urging supporters to start marching toward Gaza, while at the same time acknowledging that flooding Gaza with protesters to tie up evacuation forces wasn't an option.
Twenty thousand soldiers and police mobilized in southern Israel (search) on Monday to prevent pullout opponents from defying a military ban on entering Gaza to reinforce the 8,500 settlers there who have vowed to resist the evacuation next month.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 protesters were camped out in the Kfar Maimon (search) farming village near Gaza on Wednesday morning after spending two days and two nights in suffocating heat, according to an estimate by Nissim Shaham, commander of the Negev Desert police district.
Settler leaders issued a call for reinforcements on Wednesday and said the march toward the main settlement bloc of Gush Katif would resume that evening.
"We are on our way to Gush Katif," Pinchas Wallerstein told The Associated Press. "It will take as long as it takes. We don't condone the use of violence against police and soldiers ... but we have patience and we will wait and wait and wait."
Dozens of newcomers walked several miles to bypass police roadblocks set up to prevent protesters from reaching the area.
Eliada Yisrael, 49, reached Kfar Maimon on Tuesday from his settlement home in the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
"The atmosphere here is good. People have hope," Yisrael said. "We want this to be legitimate without violent confrontations with the security forces, that's our aim."
But the head of the settlers' umbrella group, Bentsi Lieberman, suggested the crowd would continue to thin significantly. "We will certainly leave a core to continue operational moves," Lieberman said. "The rest will leave to re-energize and go to their Sabbath dinners, and await orders from us so we will be able to see what effective measures to take going forward."
There were other signs the protesters were looking for a way out. Yitzhak Levy, a lawmaker and settler leader, said he had suggested to the protest leadership that they reach an agreement with police to march an additional 5 miles and go home, giving up on the goal of reaching Gaza.
The protest's aim, Levy said, is to show opposition to the withdrawal, and not to clash with security forces. "It will end either tonight or tomorrow morning. We are reaching the decisive moment," Levy told Israel's Army Radio.
Parliamentary efforts on Wednesday to derail the evacuation weren't expected to fare well. Lawmakers were scheduled to vote on a proposal to delay the withdrawal, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a clear majority to block the delay.
The upcoming withdrawal has also fueled clashes between Hamas militants and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah faction, as the militants vie for control of Gaza ahead of the pullout.
Overnight, Hamas and Fatah agreed to remove their gunmen from the streets of northern Gaza, where gunfights, acts of arson and clashes erupted over the past few days. Two bystanders were killed and several were wounded in the fighting.
Barely two hours later, Hamas gunmen refused to stop at a Palestinian police roadblock in Gaza, and then opened fire on the homes of Palestinian police chief, Rashid Abu Shbak, and Fatah leader Abdullah Franji, said Soufian Abu Zaida, a Cabinet minister and top Fatah official. Abu Zaida played down the incident, saying the situation was under control.
Senior Egyptian intelligence officials, meanwhile, are to remain in Gaza throughout the pullout, an Egyptian official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because his position bars him from speaking in public. The mediators had rushed to Gaza several days ago to rescue a five-month-old Mideast truce left in tatters by weekend fighting, both between Israelis and Palestinians, and among Palestinians.
In addition, Egyptian officers are to arrive in the Palestinian territories in the next two days, to train and advise Palestinian security forces who will deploy in areas Israel evacuates.