JERUSALEM, AP -Israeli security forces clashed early Monday with Jewish settlers trying to break a blockade placed on Gaza Strip settlements, a possible preview of confrontations later in the day when opponents to a planned withdrawal from Gaza try to march to the coastal area.
The two days of clashes at the crossing point between Jewish settlers and police are expected to get worse when security forces enter the Gaza Strip in mid-August to evacuate 8,500 settlers. In early September the army will remove an additional 500 settlers from four West Bank settlements.
Elsewhere, Israel on Sunday threatened to invade Gaza if Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas does not control militants who have stepped up rocket and mortar attacks ahead of Israel”s planned pullout from the coastal strip next month.
Abbas pledged to do his utmost to stop the barrages but warned that an invasion of Gaza would "sabotage everything."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said all restraints are off and thousands of Israeli troops have massed along the Gaza border. The sudden escalation is the most serious threat yet to a 5-month-old truce that had drastically reduced Palestinian-Israeli violence after more than four years of bloodshed.
More than 100 rockets and mortars have rained down on Gaza settlements and Israeli villages just outside the territory in the last four days. Hamas leaders say they are retaliating for Israeli violations of the truce.
But one leader said the main reason for the barrage was to show that Israeli settlers were fleeing Gaza under fire rather than in a planned evacuation.
Early Monday, Hamas claimed responsibility for firing another barrage of mortars and homemade rockets at Israeli targets. No injuries were reported in the strike.
Some 20,000 police and soldiers were to deploy throughout southern Israel later Monday to prevent an estimated 50,000 Gaza pullout opponents from marching toward the Gaza Strip settlements, said Avi Zilber, a police spokesman.
Protesters plan to march about 5 miles daily until Wednesday when they reach the Gaza Strip. But police said the crowd would not be allowed to leave the town of Netivot, where the march is to begin.
Settler leader Bentsi Lieberman condemned the police decision as a violation of democratic rights. He denied marchers would cut through the perimeter fence around the Gaza settlements.
But some pullout opponents — including a hard-line lawmaker — called on marchers to carry wire-cutters with them so they could break into the Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif.
Police banned the march because they don”t want protesters to enter the Gaza settlements, and also due to fear Palestinians will fire mortars and rockets at the demonstrators, Zilber said.
Security officials presented Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra early Monday with operational plans for preventing the march, Zilber said. Israeli radios reported roadblocks would be set up along the 16-mile stretch between Netivot and Gaza.
Ezra warned Monday”s demonstration could become violent unless organizers prevent the marchers from breaking the law.
The army barred nonresidents from entering the Gaza Strip settlements last week, partly to prevent protesters from reaching the area. Settler leaders organizing the march said their goal was to enter the settlements and remain there until the evacuation in an attempt to sabotage the pullout.
Since the Gaza settlements were isolated, Jewish settlers and other Gaza pullout opponents have been clashing with security forces at the crossing point.
Early Monday, television footage showed settlers clad in orange — the color symbolizing opposition to the withdrawal — being dragged, pulled and carried away from the area by police and soldiers.
Israeli Cabinet ministers criticized the pullout opponents, saying they are forcing the army to fight on two fronts: on the one hand the settlers, and on the other Palestinian militants who have fired more than 100 mortars and rockets at Israeli targets since last Thursday, killing at least one woman.