JERUSALEM – Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Monday rejected a last-ditch appeal by Jewish settlers to stage a large demonstration in southern Israel against the upcoming withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search), and angry settler leaders pledged to defy the order.
Settlers, who oppose the withdrawal plan, hope to mass thousands of people in the border town of Sderot (search) on Tuesday and march from there into Gaza's Gush Katif (search) bloc of settlements, slated for evacuation.
Last month, thousands of police and soldiers prevented a large settler rally from reaching Gaza.
Mofaz met with settler leaders Monday and said he would not permit the protest to take place, said settler representatives and defense officials who attended the meeting. Mofaz said protesters would not even be allowed to reach Sderot, the officials said.
Mofaz said his order was a security matter. Sderot, just a few miles from Gaza, is frequently attacked by Palestinian rocket fire, and a large gathering of people could make an easy target.
But Israeli officials are also concerned by continued attempts by anti-withdrawal opponents to enter Gaza, which is now a closed military zone. With the evacuation two weeks away, officials believe about 2,000 people have managed to infiltrate the Gaza settlements.
Settler leader Tzviki Bar-Chai said the minister's decision violated the democratic right to protest and urged his followers to travel to Sderot anyway.
"We are calling on all our supporters ... to leave now for Sderot. We will welcome them already tonight," he told Israel Radio.
Attorney General Meni Mazuz defended the government's decision, saying the settlers were trying to break the law.
"There is a clear statement by the organizers ... that the goal is not a demonstration of free speech. The goal is to get into Gush Katif, to penetrate the banned area in order to sabotage the (withdrawal)," he told a parliamentary committee.
Later Monday, police said they approved a compromise proposal to permit a march in Ofakim, a nearby town out of Palestinian rocket range. There was no immediate reaction from the settlers.
Under the "disengagement" plan, Israel will uproot all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small West Bank communities. About 9,000 settlers are to be uprooted from their homes, and most oppose the plan.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that more than half of the settlers have submitted requests to the government for compensation and housing assistance. He urged the remainder to begin cooperating.
"Don't be tempted to believe that the disengagement wont be implemented or that it will be delayed," he told Cabinet ministers. "The disengagement will be implemented on schedule."
Many opponents believe the withdrawal will be called off at the last minute through divine intervention. Many opponents are observant Jews who believe the land is promised to the Jews in the Bible.
On Monday, a rabbi who worked in an army-affiliated religious seminary said Israeli forces participating in the withdrawal will suffer a debilitating disease or die in a car accident.
Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel told Army Radio that forcing a Jew from his home is a great sin. "Some years later, if he suffers a malignant disease or a fatal road accident, everyone will know why," Tzuriel said, referring to forces carrying out the evacuation.
Tzuriel's pronouncement is the latest in a string of hostile comments made by pro-settler rabbis against the government's plan. Authorities have warned against incitement, and have detained several extremists.
Meanwhile, a Palestinian Cabinet minister said the Palestinian Authority has rented 200 vehicles to shuttle curious Gazans in and out of Jewish settlements after they are evacuated in mid-August.
The withdrawal will give Palestinians the opportunity to tour the red-roofed communities most of them have never visited, although many of the enclaves were established at least 20 years ago.
The settler homes are supposed to be demolished by Israel once the residents are removed.