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Jewish Settlers Protest Gaza Pullout Plan (AP) By MARK LAVIE JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 01/31/05 2:42 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50422-2005Jan31.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM - Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters protested outside parliament against Israel´s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, saying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not have a mandate to dismantle settlements and must hold a national referendum.

During the rally, one of the largest in Jerusalem´s history, demonstrators joined in a mass pledge to go to Gaza to try to disrupt the dismantling of settlements, set for this summer. However, the protest was unlikely to deter Sharon who stabilized his coalition, despite efforts of opponents to topple him.

"Ariel Sharon, you have no mandate to expel Jews," said Effie Eitam, a pro-settler lawmaker, to a crowd estimated at about 130,000.

The settler protest came as a de-facto truce was taking hold and Israel was preparing to hand security control of West Bank towns to the Palestinians.

Palestinian police commanders said they were told to prepare to take control of four West Bank cities - Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Tulkarem and Jericho - on Wednesday. However, Israeli officials said no steps would be taken ahead of a meeting of the Israeli Security Cabinet on Thursday.

Palestinian security officials said they were told by their Israeli counterparts that troops would take down some roadblocks ringing West Bank towns, rolling back security measures imposed after violence erupted in September 2000. Israeli forces reoccupied West Bank towns in April 2002, after a series of particularly bloody suicide bombings, but have pulled back to the outskirts of population centers in most areas since then.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has won a commitment from militant groups to stop attacks, and Israel has scaled back its military operations in return - but no formal cease-fire declarations have been made.

In another significant move, an Israeli official said Sunday that Israel would grant an amnesty to West Bank fugitives, ending its relentless search for dozens of militants suspected of carrying out or planning attacks. In four years of conflict, dozens have been killed in Israeli raids and many more arrested.

The amnesty would allow Abbas to fulfill a key campaign pledge made before he handily won a Jan. 9 election to replace the late Yasser Arafat - that fugitives would be allowed to reintegrate into Palestinian society with no fear of Israeli reprisal.

Israel has long held the right to strike at militants, though Palestinians called the operations assassinations and human rights groups condemned the practice.

Israel´s army chief met Monday morning with senior officers to discuss the scope and timing of a release of Palestinian prisoners, another key Palestinian demand, defense officials said.

Abbas wants some of the approximately 7,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisoners to be set free.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Sunday that although a release was acceptable to Israel in principle, prisoners who killed Israelis could not be freed in the near term. Mofaz left open the possibility that criteria could be eased in the future.

Abbas and Sharon were heading toward their first meeting since 2003, when Abbas was prime minister. Feb. 8 was emerging as the date for the summit, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to arrive in the region two days earlier.

Both sides appeared eager to put four years of violence behind them, but the bloodshed has left its mark on their ability to trust each other. Each side has been qualifying its declarations about peace and quiet by adding that the continuation depends on the actions of the other side.

For the meantime, though, gestures, meetings and practical steps were in the works. Security commanders were to meet again Monday in what is becoming routine coordination - a stark contrast to months of overt hostility.

The atmosphere could quickly sour if there is a serious Palestinian attack or Israeli military strike.

Israel´s Channel Two TV showed video Sunday of an advanced radar tracking system being installed next to Gaza to track incoming rockets heading for Sderot, a much-battered Israeli town. The radar is part of the U.S.-Israeli Nautilus system, designed to intercept and destroy small rockets with laser beams. The report said the rest of the system would be installed later. (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/31/05)

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