NETIVOT, Israel – Security forces blocked thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters from marching Monday night in protest of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip (search) next month.
After a two-hour standoff, settlers said they reached an agreement with security forces to spend the night in Kfar Maimon (search), a village two miles from their starting point and 12 miles away from their goal — the main crossing point into the Gaza settlements.
Settlers pledged to push on toward Gaza in the morning.
About 20,000 police and soldiers were deployed in southern Israel to block the marchers, who started out after a rally in the town of Netivot (search). A line of soldiers and police stopped the march shortly after it started.
Forming a sea of orange, their chosen protest color, the settlers shouted at the security forces to disobey their orders, while protest leaders tried to persuade military officers to let them through. No violence was reported.
In an unprecedented step, police fanned out across the country to prevent people from boarding buses headed for the demonstration. In Jerusalem, about a dozen demonstrators started walking toward Gaza, more than 60 miles away.
Also Monday, Egyptian mediators held talks in Gaza with Palestinian militants to try to rescue a five-month-old Mideast truce after a violent weekend. Some progress was apparent, and Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks subsided somewhat.
The protesters' main target was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for decades the champion of settlement construction and expansion who changed course and proposed removing veteran settlements from the West Bank and Gaza for the first time.
Demonstrators in Netivot warned that exiting Gaza would leave Hamas with a free hand and encourage attacks. Five young children sat in a circle with bumper stickers attached to their shirts reading, "Sharon is creating a terror state."
Ori Ben-Naim, 15, from the West Bank settlement of Hashmonaim, was determined to march on Gaza. "They don't have a way to stop us," he said. "The march is going to show, especially to the government, that we are not going to give up Gush Katif."
Thousands of police and soldiers lined roads between Netivot and the Kissufim crossing, prepared to stop a march that police commissioner Moshe Karadi declared illegal.
"When it became apparent that the participants would use this event as a platform to disrupt the evacuation by establishing a human block and attempting to enter Gush Katif, I decided to prohibit it," Karadi said.
Almost all the protesters were Orthodox Jews, illustrating the religious backing of opposition to the removal of all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank, set to begin in mid-August. Rabbis have declared that no Israeli government has the right to relinquish control of any part of biblical Israel.
A long blue tarp down the middle of the site separated men and women in Orthodox fashion. Teenagers and parents, pushing strollers or carrying children on their shoulders, stood in the hot sun, joining in prayers chanted over loudspeakers.
A banner over the stage read, "Mass march to Gush Katif." Anger was tempered with celebration, as youngsters danced in circles and licked orange ice pops.
Police tried to pre-empt the gathering by stopping dozens of buses before they could leave for Netivot — with some success.
In Jerusalem, nearly 100 withdrawal opponents waited for buses that never arrived. "It's very frustrating ... you know we're on vacation and we want to do whatever we can to help the country," said New Yorker Sandy Brown, wearing an orange T-shirt.
At the entrance to Jerusalem, police — some on horseback — held back a crowd of about 100 demonstrators who briefly blocked traffic.
Meanwhile, Egyptian mediators made apparent progress in talks with Hamas militants aimed at reviving the truce. Rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza dipped noticeably Monday.
Afterward, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said the group is "still committed" to the cease-fire, adding that Hamas reserves the right to "retaliate against any violation and any Israeli aggression."
In Gaza violence, Palestinian medics said Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old boy near an Israeli settlement. The military said soldiers fired in front of cars trying to run a roadblock but did not see pedestrians. Asked about the incident, Zahar did not threaten a reprisal.
Israeli troops massed on the Gaza border after a weekend barrage of rockets and mortars, but Vice Premier Ehud Olmert took a conciliatory tone in an interview with The Associated Press. He said he hopes Palestinian leader Abbas will end the attacks. "If he will stop it, we will not have to interfere," Olmert said.
Abbas told foreign reporters at his Gaza office that he remains hopeful negotiations among Palestinian factions can reconstitute the cease-fire — but he warned he would brook no opposition to his forces.
"We hope and pray that we won't have to shoot anyone," he said.