Army Downplays Number of Infiltrators to Strip

IDF: 600, not 1,500, non-residents of Gush Katif managed to break through security forces' blockade.

The struggle between the army and opponents of disengagement changed direction Thursday, following the end of the mass protest at Kfar Maimon, with the redeployment of the Israel Defense Forces and police units and the refocusing of their efforts on blockading the Gaza Strip itself.

However, military sources said Thursday that security forces were unable to hermetically seal off the Strip. The IDF believes that approximately 600 non-residents have entered the area to join anti-pullout forces since the the closure was imposed on July 13, and that a few dozen more activists managed to slip in Thursday. The army rejected a claim by the Yesha council of settlements that as many as 1,000 people slipped into the Strip on the night between Wednesday and Thursday.

Immediately following Yesha council chairman Bentzi Leiberman's call at Kfar Maimon on Thursday morning for demonstrators to go home so as to return with renewed strength, and his statement that the strategy would be to infiltrate the Gush bit by bit, the masses of people who had crowded the small community since Monday night began to leave. Hundreds of young people and families stood hitch-hiking on the road. On Thursday afternoon, buses sent by the Yesha council arrived to collect the last of the demonstrators.

Also Thursday morning, the army started to dismantle its command post and reassign the soldiers who had surrounding the moshav.

The army says it estimates that approximately 1,500 pullout opponents who are not Gush Katif residents are now in the Gaza Strip, joining the region's 8,000 residents.

The army also says that they have a problem with the "fifth circle" - the soldiers assigned to seal off the Strip. Soldiers and police have managed to thwart attempts to reach Gush Katif by cutting through the boundary fence or using unpaved roads. The weak link is the Kissufim crossing itself, where soldiers are said not to be careful about checking the identity of all the passengers in the cars driving entering, making do with demanding the identity card of the driver only.

People attempting to enter the Strip are also said to be using "Palestinian methods" - they get out of the car, walk across the checkpoint, and get in again on the other side. Soldiers also seem to be lenient about accepting the reasons people give for wanting to enter the area. People are also taking advantage of invitations by Gush resident to receive permission to enter, and then disregard its expiration date.

Gush Katif is also rife with stories of soldiers or police who have assisted people in attempts to get through the roadblocks.

Although the Southern Command is concerned at the number of non-residents entering Gush Katif, for the time being they have decided not to take harsh measures. Security forces said, however, that police and soldiers will eject non-residents who disturb the peace well ahead of disengagement day on August 15.

A number of anti-pullout activists took advantage of the 20,000-strong security forces around Kfar Maimon to infiltrate the Strip. Immediately after the demonstration broke up Thursday, a group of about 750 protesters headed for Gush Katif. The group split into three sub-groups and walked through the fields toward Kibbutz Sa'ad, intending to continue to the Strip. Security forces arrested 268 of them. Most of the rest made it through through, according to sources in Gush Katif.

Those arrested were taken to the Be'er Sheva police station, where most agreed to identify themselves and were released after promising not to return to the Kissufim area. A 14-year-old suspect who was arrested for allegedly attacking a police woman was also released, but police said he will be charged. Seven other people were arrested for allegedly trying to run over a soldier attempting to block their way. The soldier was lightly injured, and the driver was kept in custody.

Senior IDF officers criticized what they called "panic" on the part of the army and the police during the events at Kfar Maimon this week. The officers said the deployment of the security forces at the demonstration was too large and that soldiers and police were unnecessarily exhausted, impairing operational readiness in other areas of the country.

Among the forces stationed at the demonstration, were the three brigades of career soldiers that will take part in disengagement. They were called to the area a week ahead of their scheduled arrival date because of the demonstration.

In light of the success of activists in evading security forces, police and the army reinforced roadblocks and vehicle patrols around the Gaza Strip. Police at roadblocks received orders to more carefully check passengers in cars attempting to enter the Strip.

As residents of Kfar Maimon took stock after the departure of demonstrators, they said that most of the damage had been done by security forces just outside the community. Inside the moshav, vegetation was trampled and the sewage backed up.

Protest organizers brought in dozens of volunteers who worked for several hours to remove large amounts of garbage. The moshav's leadership met Thursday with the commander of the Southern Police District, Major General Uri Bar-Lev, who said police would repair any damage and hire a crew to clean up the area where they had been stationed.

Meanwhile, the relative calm on the Palestinian front continued. No Qassam rockets were fired on communities within the Green line and fewer mortar shells were fired on Gush Katif. There were a number of cases of light-weapons fire in the Gaza Strip.

The IDF attributes the security quiet to efforts by the Egyptian mediation team now in the Gaza Strip. However, the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the region last night may induce some armed organizations to create provocation that will raise tensions again, the IDF said.