GAZA (Reuters) – Israel sealed off all Jewish settlements in occupied Gaza on Wednesday in its most far-reaching move to choke off resistance to a planned withdrawal from the coastal strip next month.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed an order closing Gaza”s 21 settlements to non-residents after ultranationalists announced plans for a march that could have brought an influx of thousands of pro-settler protesters in coming days.
The closure by the army enraged settler leaders, who may now step up anti-pullout demonstrations within Israel.
Rightist opponents to Sharon”s plan, which he has billed as "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians, have blocked highways and planted fake bombs.
"This is an incomprehensible act," settler council head Avner Shimoni said of the settlement closure. "Is there no democracy?"
Israel declared a closed military zone to prevent more settler supporters from swarming in and hunkering down to reinforce Gaza settlers vowing to resist eviction in mid-August.
Security officials fear that a hard core of activists could turn violent, though most settlers have promised only passive resistance.
"The situation required it," one government source said after the border was sealed.
Cars and trucks quickly backed up at a main crossing point between Israel and Gush Katif, Gaza”s largest settlement bloc, with irate drivers waving identity cards at police and demanding to be let through.
Polls show most Israelis support the pullout plan, which Sharon says will boost the Jewish state”s security after nearly five years of conflict.
But rightist opponents, many of whom claim a biblical birthright to Gaza and the occupied West Bank, say it is a gift to Palestinian militants who have spearheaded attacks during an uprising.
Sharon”s plan calls for removing all of Gaza”s settlements and four of 120 enclaves in the West Bank, territories the Palestinians want for a future state.
Some 8,500 settlers live in Gaza cloistered from more than 1.3 million Palestinians.
The World Court has said Israel”s settlements are illegal under international law. Israel disputes this.