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This week in Palestine, a service of the International Middle East Media Center IMEMC.Org for, the week of Friday, July 15, to Thursday, July 21.

Tensions approached the boiling point in Israel and Palestine last week, as Israeli settlers and their allies stepped up their campaign against the government’s Gaza pullout plan, armed conflict broke out between Hamas and Palestinian Authority forces, and Israel’s ongoing campaign of assassinations, arrests, and land grabs continued unabated.

Disengagement controversy

In Israel all eyes were focused on the Negev desert area adjacent to the Gaza Strip, where tens of thousands of ultra-right-wing activists gathered for a mass march to protest Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate Israeli settlers from the Gaza area next month. Settler leaders had predicted that some 100,000 people would join their multi-day demonstration. Israeli police, however, declared the demonstration illegal and blocked buses trying to ferry protestors to it, even confiscating the bus drivers’ licenses. Despite the efforts of the police, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people rallied at the town of Netivot on Monday night and succeeded in marching from there to the town of Kfar Maimon, where they set up a camp in preparation for an attempt to reach Gush Katif, the main Israeli settlement area in the Gaza Strip. But Israel sent an estimated 40,000 police and soldiers to surround Kfar Maimon and keep the demonstrators from entering the Gaza Strip. By the end of the week most of the protestors had dispersed, but Israeli army officials acknowledged that at least 600 anti-pullout activists may have eluded the troops and slipped into Gaza to join their comrades in Gush Katif.

Despite the demonstrations, which were among the largest and most bitter in Israel’s history, Sharon insisted that the government will proceed with its plan to evacuate the settlers from Gaza and four small settlements in the northern West Bank on August 15. On Wednesday the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted down a move to postpone the disengagement for a year. The bill, sponsored by religious parties and the ultra-right, was defeated by a margin of 69 to 41, even though several prominent members of Sharon’s own cabinet stayed away to avoid the vote.


Palestinian infighting

Meanwhile, the week was marked by sporadic armed clashes in Gaza City between Palestinian Authority security services and armed activists from the Hamas movement. The conflict erupted last weekend after Hamas activists stepped up the firing of mortars and homemade shells, known as Qassams, at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and adjacent towns, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, under pressure from Israel and the U.S., vowed to ‘do his utmost’ to stop them. Fighting began when Palestinian Authority police attempted to stop a car carrying Hamas activists who were believed to be planning another attack. By the time it was over, three Palestinians were killed, more than 20 injured, and several armored vehicles recently provided to the Palestinian Authority by Western countries had been burned.

Egyptian diplomats and intelligence officers stepped in to try to mediate the conflict, but at week’s end tensions remained high.

Citing the conflict among the Palestinian, Israel massed troops and tanks on the borders of the Gaza Strip and threatened a full-scale intervention. Israel also took advantage of the situation to resume its campaign of assassination against Hamas leaders. Last Friday Israeli warplanes fired missiles at two Palestinian vehicles, one in the Gaza Strip and another in the West Bank, killing at least eight Hamas activists. On Sunday the air force also fired at least two missiles at a car in Jabalia, in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, in an unsuccessful attempt to kill two members of the al-Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas. In addition, an Israeli sniper shot and killed Sa’id Aissa Siam, a 32-year-old Hamas member, as he stood outside the door of his house.

Israel also shut down border and trade crossings into Gaza, preventing even Palestinians with the required permits from reaching their jobs in Israel, and for several days Israeli soldiers closed the major checkpoints within the Gaza Strip, dividing the area into three sections and preventing residents from traveling among them – a tactic the Israelis have resorted to only rarely since the Palestinians declared a truce on February 8.

On Monday, when a group of cars that had been blocked for hours at the Abu Holy checkpoint attempted to force their way through, Israeli soldiers opened fire, hitting a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, Rateb al-Masri, in the chest. The boy died later in a hospital.

On the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli continued its campaign of repression. At least 17 Palestinians were arrested on Saturday after the army conducted house-to-house searches in several cities, including Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Qalqilia, and surrounding villages

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On Tuesday an Israeli SWAT team killed two leaders of the Islamic Jihad movement in al-Yamoun village, near the northern West Bank city of Jenin. The army claimed that the victims, Ibrahim Thaher Abahra, 32 years old, and Warrad Mohammad Abahra, 31, were responsible for many attacks carried out recently against settlers and soldiers in the Jenin area.

On Wednesday soldiers supported by armoured vehicles invaded the town of al-Thahiriyya, near Hebron, and broke into dozens of homes and stores.


Separation Wall

Israel also continued its efforts to extend the so-called separation wall in the West Bank and to crack down on activists demonstrating against it. On Wednesday the authorities issued military orders confiscating hundreds of acres of Palestinian-owned farmlands to the east of Hebron, in order to build the Wall there.

Two more demonstrations against the wall took place during the week at Bil’in, a village near Ramallah that in recent months has led the non-violent resistance. Last Friday dozens of residents and Israeli and international peace activists conducted a peaceful march, but were attacked by Israeli soldiers . Four internationals, twelve Israelis, and two Palestinian members of Bil’in’s Public Committee Against the Wall were arrested, and four local residents and two internationals were injured.

At another demonstration in Bil’in on Wednesday, protestors chained themselves to barrels, and seven placed themselves in a pipe, in an attempt to prevent the soldiers from resuming construction of the Wall. Soldiers attacked with clubs and gas bombs, and several protestors, especially those in the pipe, were badly beaten, and seven were arrested

From the International Middle East Media Center, IMEMC.org, in Beit Sahour, Palestine, this is Rachel Jones.

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