Israeli Demonstrators Stream Into Gaza Strip

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- Thousands of Israelis poured into the Gaza Strip's main Jewish settlement bloc Wednesday to protest this summer's planned withdrawal, show support for the settlers and bid farewell to the area Israel occupied for 38 years.

Gaza settler leaders were expecting at least 100,000 people, which would make it one of the largest demonstrations since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the pullout plan last year. Turnout was expected to be bolstered by warm weather and the Passover holiday, when schools are closed and many people are on vacation.

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

"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 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 from Palestinian militants.

Organizers were selling orange flags and T-shirts, symbols of opposition to the withdrawal. During the day, event organizers planned a march through Gaza's seaside settlements and a rally.

The procession began at midmorning, and a steady stream of people marched through the area. Many carried orange balloons and wore shirts and hats saying "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 all live in the settlement, said she has made no preparations for life after the withdrawal and remains hopeful that the government will cancel the plan.

"We are waiting for salvation from God," she said, adding that she would resist the evacuation order solely through peaceful means.

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. 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 schoolteachers, said they planned on moving to Gaza in about six weeks and would stay with friends throughout the withdrawal. They said they planned only passive resistance, but conceded there might be some extremists who would use violence against troops carrying out the evacuation.

n President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday named a tough new commander for Palestinian internal security who helped lead a 1990s crackdown on Islamic militants, Reuters reported.

The appointment of Rashid Abu Shbak as head of preventive security -- to monitor political groups and track down collaborators with Israel -- further strengthens Abbas's hand after ousting top officers who were loyal to Yasser Arafat.

Reforming the corruption-ridden security forces is a step towards meeting U.S. and Israeli demands and could strengthen prospects for peacemaking that have already grown since Abbas was elected president to replace the late Arafat in January. A Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman said the reforms would help forces impose order. Palestinians complain of growing chaos linked to militant factions and to criminals.

"People will soon begin to feel tangible results," said Tawfik Abu Khoussa.

In a sign of the challenges faced by Abbas and Abu Shbak, Gaza Strip militants fired two rockets into southern Israel on Tuesday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, which caused no casualties or damage.