Marchers Stopped Outside Ofakim, Hundreds Attempt Gaza Entry

More than 45,000 determined protesters remained at the Peduyim Junction on the outskirts of Ofakim all night after the march to Gush Katif was blocked by tens of thousands of soldiers and police.

Ezra HaLevi , | updated: 21:50

Meanwhile, hundreds took to the fields and back roads, attempting to enter Gush Katif and northern Gaza's Jewish communities in small groups.

"We will not move from here, we will stay here at this Junction until we are allowed to continue toward Gush Katif," Pinchas Wallerstein told protesters. "the only direction we will move is westward toward our brothers in Gush Katif."

"The Prime Minister has deployed 15,000 police and soldiers to block our way," Yesha Council chairman Bentzy Lieberman told Israel Radio. "Time after time, the understandings we have reached with the police are simply violated due to the whims of the Sharon family. We refuse to clash with security forces, but there are increasingly violent provocations on the part of the police against this very large, responsible public. We will march until we are stopped, and we will not move until the way is cleared."

The violence referred to by Lieberman was the result of a group of Yassam Brigade (specially trained riot police) officers who, when the marching masses reached the police checkpoint at the outskirts of Ofakim, entered the crowd and began pushing and shoving demonstrators.

Arutz-7's Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu reported that tens of thousands of protesters stopped along the main road leading out of Ofakim after the march's leadership reached the police lines. "Police have locked arms and are lining the entire western side of the road," Ben Gedalyahu said. "There are also numerous elderly people here, in their 60s and 70s, as well as hundreds of hareidi-religious marchers - more than I have seen at any previous event like this."

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The atmosphere of the march, until the police moved in, had been quite festive, with one foreign member of the press saying that with all the singing and dancing, it seems like "GushStock."

When the marchers reached the myriads of police and soldiers, Yesha Council leaders and MKs asked the soldiers to allow them to continue toward Gush Katif. A recording of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advising soldiers to inform their commanders of their inability to evacuate Jews from part of the Land of Israel was played repeatedly.

Protesters, young and old, lined up opposite the security forces and began speaking with them from their hearts about the need to refuse to take part in what they say is an illegal series of orders culminating in the expulsion of a civilian population from their homes. Witnesses said the scene was a large-scale version of what has become a nightly ritual at the Kisufim Crossing - where local youngsters speak with soldiers until the wee hours of the morning, urging them to refuse orders to expel them from their homes.
Soldiers outside Ofakim preparing to block marchers from reaching Gush Katif.

Negotiations between Yesha Council officials and police continued regarding how to proceed - whether the march will be allowed to continue, or, as police hope, the protesters will return to Ofakim to spend the night. Yesha Council officials implored Southern Regional Police Chief Uri Bar-Lev to allow the marchers to march westward toward the Kisufim Crossing, until the area delineated as a closed military zone. The officials stressed that the public had proven itself to be responsible and non-violent. "There is no reason we should not be allowed to democratically protest," they said.
The streets of Ofakim, filled with people Wednesday afternoon.

Many of the marchers, as well as the coordinators, expressed their determination not to move away from the direction of Gush Katif, but, if blocked, to sit down and remain in their place until allowed to proceed.

Helicopters buzzed overhead as bright spotlights were shown along the road's shoulders - a move aimed at preventing activists from sneaking away toward Gush Katif. Hundreds of marchers were reported to have successfully entered Gush Katif Tuesday night and the IDF was under pressure to prevent further entry. Gush Katif residents reportedly made preparations for hundreds more to enter Wednesday night and in the early hours of Thursday. Police reported several groups of activists moving through the fields surrounding Gaza.

At 7 AM Thursday morning it was reported that 200 students from the "Orange Cell" campus movement, together with members of "Professors For a Strong Israel," had succeeded in reaching the northern Gaza community of Nissanit during the night. By 8 AM, 150 of the students and professors had been rounded up and arrested, with two sent to Ashkelon's Barzilai Hospital following police violence. Overnight, police reported 210 anti-expulsion activists arrested as they tried to get past Kisufim Crossing as well.

Late Wednesday night, thousands of people were still reported to be stuck in traffic on their way to Ofakim due to police roadblocks set up around the city. The move was condemned by the Yesha Council and a "moment of silence to mourn Israeli democracy" was observed during the main rally at the behest of a senior Likud activist.

Earlier Wednesday evening, several major thoroughfares, including the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, were blocked for long periods of time by protesters taking advantage of the fact that police have been largely redeployed to stand between Jewish Gaza and its supporters.

At 7:40 AM Thursday, Yesha Council march organizers told the thousands that had camped out on the road to begin heading back to Ofakim. Police say that the demonstrators agreed to go back to Ofakim after they were threatened with the arrival of hundreds of buses to take them away from the area. Yesha Council leaders said the move was due to the discomfort of camping out on the road.