Security tight in Gaza

In Gaza City celebrations organised by the Palestinian Authority to mark Israel’s pending departure after a 38-year occupation, president Mahmoud Abbas told the crowd: “Today Gaza and tomorrow Jerusalem if God wills it.”

“Today, our march to freedom begins. Tomorrow, it will be Jenin’s turn and after that Jerusalem,” he said.

With the evacuation due to start on August 17, some Gaza settlers continued to pack up, while others prepared for a standoff with Israeli security forces.

The Israeli army says more than 5,000 anti-pullout protestors have infiltrated Gaza settlements, mostly in Neve Dekalim – considered the capital of the Gush Katif settlement bloc.

Settler groups promise peaceful resistance but officials fear a hard core of ultranationalists could turn violent.

Despite the strong opposition to the pullout Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remained defiant.

“I have no regrets. Even if I had anticipated the size of the opposition to my disengagement plan, I would have maintained it,” Mr Sharon told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

“There is no question of my asking for their forgiveness but I share in their grief,” Mr Sharon said.

On Thursday night 150,000 Jewish ultranationalists held a mass rally in Tel Aviv, the largest anti-withdrawal demonstration so far.

Israeli police planned to go on high alert from Sunday, beefing up roadblocks outside Gaza to head off protesters.

Meanwhile around 7,500 Palestinian security forces are to be mobilised.

They will be deployed near settlements to form a protective cordon against possible militant attacks.

Mr Abbas earlier this week urged all militants to halt attacks on Israeli targets as part of a larger appeal for calm during the pullout.

Israel has vowed to hit back if militants break a six-month-old ceasefire during or after the evacuation.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have expressed support for the principle of the pullout, but have given no guarantees they will cooperate with the operation.

In further note of defiance Hamas said it would not surrender its weapons to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal, but vowed to continue its fight against the Jewish state.

“This army will continue to defend our homeland as long as one inch of Palestine remains occupied,” Hamas leader in Gaza Mahmud Zahar said.

The Palestinian mufti Sheikh Ekremah Sabri called on worshippers to flock to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque on Sunday in a bid to foil a reported attempt by Jewish extremist to take over the holy site.