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More than 20,000 march in protest of Israel's pullout plan

NETIVOT, Israel—Thousands of demonstrators defied their government, evaded military checkpoints and confronted soldiers Monday in a last-ditch crusade to scuttle Israel's looming plan to shut down all of its Gaza Strip settlements.

With Israel preparing next month to raze its 21 settlements nestled amid occupied Palestinian lands and clear the area of its 8,500 Israelis, a phalanx of police and soldiers temporarily blocked more than 20,000 chanting, cheering, praying protesters from marching toward Gaza.

The showdown came as Israeli officials were finalizing plans to forcibly remove settlers who refuse to leave their homes, in what's expected to be one of the most contentious and emotional political moves Israel has made in decades.

Tensions in the area have been building for weeks, with Israeli settlers clashing with soldiers, Palestinian militants launching rockets into the Gaza settlements and Israel responding by killing seven leaders of the extremist group Hamas while dispatching tanks to the border with a threat to invade if the attacks didn't stop.

So far, none of the provocations has undermined plans to shut down all the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank.

Settlers and their backers are doing all they can to derail the pullout.

Organizers of Monday's rally initially planned a three-day march to the Gaza Strip's largest settlement, but Israeli officials declared the region a closed military zone last week and barred protesters from taking part. Demonstrators worked out a deal to lead a rally near the Gaza Strip border and a small march to a nearby town.

As protesters across Israel were boarding buses to attend the rally, Israeli officials declared the protest illegal and directed police to block the buses from heading toward Gaza.

Despite the attempt to thwart them, many demonstrators flocked to the region in minivans and cars adorned with orange banners and ribbons to symbolize their opposition to closing the settlements.

"The prime minister is trying to take the homes of the Israelis," said Ben Tsion Klibansky, a 45-year-old Russian immigrant who'd packed clothes, bread, cheese, sweets and a sleeping bag in his backpack to take part in the march. "We emigrated to Israel and now we see that it is not our country."

The rally drew a strong Orthodox Jewish contingent. A long blue tarp separated women and men attending the protest, in keeping with Orthodox tradition.

Thousands of Israeli soldiers and police officers gathered in fields and prepared to block the march, which set off soon after darkness fell.

After a two-hour standoff, rally organizers and military officials agreed to allow the marchers to set up camp in a nearby town. But the military remained firm in its pledge to prevent the demonstration from heading into the Gaza settlements because of concerns that the activists would try to thwart the pullout.

While Israeli officials were grappling with the march, concerns that new Palestinian violence might create another problem appeared to be waning.

Israel killed seven Hamas leaders last week and amassed tanks along the Gaza Strip border after a 22-year-old Israeli was killed in a missile and mortar attack. Israel then held off after the attacks subsided and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a series of meetings to try to rein in the militants.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to arrive in Israel later this week to help prevent the situation from spinning out of control as the settlement shutdown approaches.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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