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Jewish Settlers Protest Gaza Pullout Plan (AP) By MARK LAVIE JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 01/31/05 7:04 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50646-2005Jan31.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 Israeli plans to withdraw 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 Sunday night´s rally, one of the largest in Jerusalem´s history, demonstrators pledged to go to Gaza to try to disrupt the evacuation 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.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz scheduled a meeting later Monday with Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Dahlan, their second session in three days, Israeli defense officials said.

The men are expected to complete preparations for a handover of security control to the Palestinians in several West Bank towns and a possible release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel.

Palestinian security officials said they were told by their Israeli counterparts that in addition to leaving West Bank towns, troops would take down some roadblocks, 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 ensued.

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. About 7,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons.

Mofaz said Sunday that prisoners who killed Israelis could not be freed in the near term but left open the possibility that criteria could be eased in the future.

Abbas and Sharon were headed 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 was to arrive in the region two days before.

In Jerusalem, several hundred settlers spent the night in tents outside parliament, and resumed their demonstration Monday. Hundreds of demonstrators, most of them teenagers, wore orange shirts, the color adopted by the opponents of the Gaza withdrawal.

Tova Felix, 57, one of the first Israelis to move to the West Bank, said settlers fear for the future of dozens of West Bank settlements as well. "This demonstration is not just about Gush Katif (the Gaza settlements)," she said. "It is about the future of the settlements." (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/31/05)

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