Israeli troops stand aside and allow settlers to continue banned march

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Israeli troops allowed more than 10,000 pro-settler demonstrators to complete the first leg of their banned march towards Gaza after what appeared to be a government climbdown.

The surprise ­ if temporary ­ concession late last night came after thousands of Israeli troops had blocked the path of the demonstrators trying to reach the Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif, declared a closed military zone last week.

The marchers had earlier faced a two-hour stand-off at a road junction three kilometres west of Netivot with a massive security force contingent backed by mounted troops, armoured vehicles and over-flying air force helicopters.

The troops had appeared determined to prevent the protesters reaching their planned first night stop at the village of Kfar Maimon. Security forces had prevented them reaching the turn-off from the main Route 25 which leads to it. Beside the huge troop contingent the army had blocked the road with a bus.

But as protesters ­ many with sleeping bags and including children ­ at the head of the march chanted and sang, one settlers' leader used a loud-hailer to tell the protesters: "There is no alternative to going on to Kfar Maimon. It is hot and no one is going to go back."

Apparently fearing violence as the demonstrators tested the strength of the army lines, senior officers finally allowed the protesters through after negotiations involving settlers' leaders and the public security minister, Gideon Ezra. A few dozen protesters had earlier slipped through police lines.

The army and police have indicated that the protesters would not be allowed to go further than Kfar Maimon on their three-day planned march, and there could be a fresh confrontation today between police and demonstrators trying to reach the main Kissufim crossing into Gaza today.

Israeli police have mounted an unprecedented operation to limit severely the scale of the demonstration, by seizing control of main roads and barring buses packed with protesters from leaving towns and cities across Israel. But many thousands still arrived, mainly by private car.

Settlers' leaders had been planning a huge rally of around 100,000 and a three-day march to the Gush Katif settlement block in Gaza from Netivot, 15 miles away. As organisers promised that the march, even if delayed, would still go ahead, the Yesha council (the umbrella body for West Bank settlers) exhorted demonstrators to defy police by travelling south "by car, by train and by foot".

More than 54 buses were turned back, many of them from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well as some of the main West Bank settlements, and multiple checkpoints were set up on major roads. Some 20,000 police were deployed.

While scores of young men began walking south after being turned off the buses, others from a religious college who tried to block the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway were swiftly cleared by police.

Four well-manned checkpoints were also set up between Netivot and Kissufim, the main crossing point into the Gaza settlements, where police used force to remove scuffling protesters early yesterday.

As settlers' leaders reacted with fury to the operation ­ they claimed bus drivers had been threatened with losing their licences if they tried to beat a ban on the demonstration ­ the hard-right Knesset member Effi Eitam said that the police operation was a "tragic mistake that would escalate the situation and create more violence". The Yesha council said the ban violated earlier understandings it had reached with the police.

One demonstrator, Jordan Katz, 48, a Chicago-born tax attorney who lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, said the journeys being forbidden by police did not even cross the "green line" which defined Israel's pre-1967 borders.