Israel's Vice-Premier Peres Warns Gaza Protesters: Will Respond More Harshly

Daily Democrat

May 18. 2005

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli police will respond harshly against Gaza pullout protesters if demonstrations continue, Vice Premier Shimon Peres warned Wednesday, two days after hundreds of young activists blocked dozens of highways - a dry run toward a concerted effort to stop the withdrawal.

Meanwhile, in violence early Wednesday, Palestinian witnesses said Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian militant at the edge of the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. Residents said they heard an explosion and then a gunshot that killed Ahmed Barhoum, 22, a Hamas member.

Military officials said Palestinians shot rifles and aimed anti-tank grenades at Israeli soldiers, who returned fire. Such cases have been rare since a cease-fire was declared on Feb. 8.

Earlier this week, police scuffled with Jewish protesters and arrested more than 300, the largest round of arrests since protest began several months ago. Nonetheless, Peres said police would use even more forceful measures if demonstrations persist.

"The police are trying to do things as gently as possible. If there will be an escalation in protests, I believe there will be an escalation in the response," Peres told Israel Radio.

Peres said in the future police would use riot control gear such as water cannons.

Protesters have said they would not be deterred by arrests and jail time.

During Tuesday's court hearings, young supporters of the detainees, most of them teenagers with large skullcaps and ritual fringes identifying them as Orthodox Jews, sang and danced outside the courtrooms, encouraging the detainees as they were taken inside, many in handcuffs.

Extra judges were brought in to handle the hearings for more than 300 protesters. Police agreed to release about 130 with a ban on similar protests for 60 days.The protest ban would expire in mid-July, just as the activists move into high gear in their drive to scuttle the pullout.

Organizers called the road blocks a success, noting that they tied up thousands of police. In August, they believe, diverting such large numbers from Gaza could cause a cancelation of the evacuation.

The pullout from all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank would be the first time Israel has ever removed established settlements from those areas after nearly four decades of construction and expansion.

Israel's new Shin Bet security chief, Yuval Diskin, warned that the pullout could lead to "Jewish terrorism," according to Israeli media. Diskin was addressing a closed session of the parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Tuesday, Sharon toured sites where the 8,500 Gaza settlers are to be moved after their evacuation - several small villages in the Negev Desert, not far from Gaza, and a main site on the coastal area of Nitzanim. He ordered construction teams to speed up their work so that the new housing will be ready in time.

Pounding on the hood of a vehicle, he implored, "There's not a minute to spare. You keep discussing, you keep requesting, you keep consulting. We've agreed on this - get to work!"

Though militant settler leaders are trying to present a united front against the pullout, promising strong nonviolent resistance, a major crack in the facade appeared on Tuesday when a settler official said that about one-quarter of the 1,600 Gaza settler families have signed up for new housing in Israel.

In another development, a Palestinian court early Wednesday ordered a new vote in three of the 14 polling stations in local elections in the southern Gaza town of Rafah after a judge accepted claims by the ruling Fatah Party of irregularities at the hands of rival Hamas.

Hamas did well in three rounds of local voting, forecasting a good showing in parliamentary elections set for July 17.