JERUSALEM - Jewish settlers cursed, prayed and wept as they brawled with Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip yesterday, while a widening campaign of protests snarled traffic across Israel and led to more than 150 arrests.
Seven weeks before Israel is to begin uprooting 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four smaller ones in the West Bank, the efforts of opponents to block the withdrawal are taking on an increasingly violent edge.
Protesters for the first time scattered spikes and sloshed oil across the busy Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway during the morning commute. Hours later, Israeli police for the first time used a water cannon against demonstrators, many of them teens and preteens, who darted into traffic and tried to sit or lie in front of cars during evening rush hour.
In a separate confrontation in Gaza's main settlement bloc of Gush Katif, Israeli troops arrested nine Jewish settlers suspected of attacking local Palestinians. Two Palestinian teenagers were hospitalized after being stoned by settlers.
Under a blazing sun, amid clouds of dust kicked up by the melee, settlers screamed epithets such as "Nazis" at young soldiers. When the troops began making arrests, settlers shoved and wrestled with them, or else went limp and had to be carried away. At one point, soldiers fired warning shots into the air.
For many Israelis, such scenes inspire a sense of deep foreboding over the prospect of bloodshed during the pullout. Opinion polls have shown backing for the withdrawal slipping to below 50 percent.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged anew that the withdrawal would go ahead, and said protesters who resort to vandalism and dangerous acts will be punished. "We will not allow gangs and hooligans to drag the country downhill," he told a Cabinet meeting, according to Israeli news accounts.
Authorities deployed 6,000 police officers, some on horseback, to try to keep traffic moving during the protesters' efforts to block roads. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
No injuries were reported as a result of the scattering of spikes and oil on the road, but officials condemned the tactic.
"This could have caused a terrible accident," Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra told Israel Radio. Tires were damaged on about 20 cars.
The settlers targeted in yesterday's army raid in Gush Katif had taken over an abandoned house in the Palestinian village of Mouwassi, which lies within the settlement bloc. Most of those holed up in the house, and in a nearby dilapidated hotel, are militants from the West Bank whose presence has made many of the more-mainstream Gaza settlers uneasy.
The squatters for several days have been engaging in stone-throwing clashes with the Mouwassi villagers, who had long enjoyed peaceful relations with the Gush Katif settlers.
They scrawled "Muhammad is a pig" on the wall of the house they took over, and flew the flag of the outlawed far-right Kach movement from the roof.
The day's conflict prompted fresh expressions of resolve from settlers and Israeli officials. Most of the settlers believe the land is their birthright and that giving up Gaza will only serve to embolden Palestinian militants.
"This is only the beginning of much greater upheaval," a Gaza settler named Roi Avichai told Israel Radio. "What's done here isn't out of a desire for fighting and violence, but with the understanding that if the [withdrawal] is implemented, it will be a disaster for the entire country."
The military commander charged with overseeing the withdrawal warned that if violence continues to escalate, he would consider declaring Gaza a closed military zone well in advance of the pullout.
"We are constantly reassessing the situation," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the chief of the army's southern command, told Israeli reporters. "If we feel we can't contain the situation, or that events are reaching levels we don't want to reach ... we would have no choice other than to seal off the strip."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.