Hundreds Protest Pullout in Israeli Courts

Hundreds of young protesters flooded Israeli courtrooms on Tuesday after blocking dozens of highways a day before, the most disruptive demonstration yet against the planned summer pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank (search). The protests came as settlers themselves were signing up to move back to Israel.

Extra judges were brought into courtrooms to handle hearings for more than 300 protesters, most of them in their teens and early 20s, detained while blocking highways with burning tires and their bodies Monday night. Police agreed to release about 130 of them with a ban on similar protests for 60 days.

Meanwhile, in violence early Wednesday, witnesses said Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian militant at the edge of the Rafah (search) refugee camp in Gaza. Residents said they heard an explosion, possibly a bomb planted by militants, and then an Israeli gunshot, which killed Ahmed Barhoum, a 22-year-old Hamas (search) member.

The military said it did not know of the incident. Such cases have been rare since a cease-fire was declared on Feb. 8.

Supporters of the Israeli protesters, most wearing skullcaps and ritual fringes identifying them as Orthodox Jews, sang and danced outside the courtrooms on Tuesday, encouraging their friends as they were taken inside, many in handcuffs.

A ban on protests is to expire in mid-July, just as the activists move into high gear in their drive to scuttle the pullout. Organizers called the road-blocking exercise a success, noting it tied up thousands of police. In August, they believe diverting such large numbers from Gaza would cause cancelation of the evacuation.

Security officials say they have contingency plans to meet the challenge. Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi said most of the protesters would be charged.

"They did not accomplish their goal to disrupt life in Israel," he told reporters on Tuesday, "but from time to time they will succeed."

In one incident Tuesday, protesters threw burning tires out of a vehicle at a northern intersection, causing a minor traffic jam, Israeli media reported.

The planned evacuation of all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank would be the first time Israel has ever removed veteran settlements from those areas after nearly four decades of construction and expansion.

The change is especially hard to swallow for Orthodox Jewish ideologues who see the West Bank and Gaza as part of the land promised to Jews in the Bible and reject any pullout on religious and security grounds.

The Israeli parliament and Cabinet have repeatedly approved the "disengagement" plan, forcing its opponents to more extreme measures. Security officials warn of possible attacks on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or on a key Islamic holy site.

Israel's new Shin Bet security chief, Yuval Diskin, warned the pullout could lead to "Jewish terrorism," according to Israeli media.

On Tuesday, Sharon toured sites where the 8,500 Gaza settlers are to be moved after their evacuation from Gaza. He ordered construction teams to speed up their work so the new housing will be ready in time.

Pounding on the hood of a vehicle, he implored, "There's not a minute to spare. You keep discussing, you keep requesting, you keep consulting. We've agreed on this — get to work!"

Though militant settler leaders are trying to present a united front against the pullout, promising strong nonviolent resistance, a major crack in the facade appeared Tuesday when a settler official said that about one-quarter of the 1,600 Gaza settler families have signed up for new housing in Israel.

The government has offered to move the Gaza families as a group to Nitzanim, a desirable area near Gaza. Last week, some settler leaders circulated the government's offer among Gaza settlers, said Yoav Elul, chairman of the Gadid settlement council and a supporter of the plan.

As of Monday, 430 families had signed on, and an additional 600 are expected to do so within a week or two, Elul said. The Gaza settlers' official leadership disputed Elul's figures, saying no more than 150 families have agreed to move.