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Israeli Disengagement Opponents Remain Defiant

Supporters of the Jewish settler movement stand behind a fence as police block protesters from leaving the southern Israeli town of Kfar Maimon, near the Gaza Strip

Israel's parliament, the Knesset, today overwhelmingly rejected a motion to delay the disengagement from Gaza and small portions of the West Bank by up to one year. The vote came as thousands of disengagement opponents remain camped out near the Gaza border in a three-day stand-off with police.

The final vote on the floor of the Knesset was 69 to 41, with two abstentions against delaying the withdrawal.

The outcome of the vote was not in doubt, but it was a last ditch chance for opponents of the disengagement plan to make their move.

For many months now, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has done some deft political maneuvering to ensure the plan goes through, despite hefty opposition from within his own Likud Party.

Mr. Sharon says dismantling the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the northern West Bank is vital to Israel's long-term security and survival.

The issue has split Israeli society, with a majority still in favor of the withdrawal, but a sizable minority, including settlers and religious and nationalist hardliners, vehemently against it.

Opponents of the plan set their hopes on a mass protest rally this week. An estimated 20,000 men, teenagers and women with small children began a march to the settlement block of Gush Katif in the southern Gaza Strip, hoping to then stay there and prevent its dismantling. But, security forces blocked their progress and the protesters have been camping out for two sweltering days and nights, surrounded by police, in the small farming village, Kfar Maimon, in southern Israel.

By Wednesday morning the number of protesters was dwindling, with police estimating that between seven to 10,000 people remained.

But, settler leader and protest organizer, Bentsi Lieberman remained defiant. He says the protest will continue.

Mr. Lieberman says protesters do not want a confrontation with police, but will still try to reach Gush Katif.

The Gaza withdrawal is to begin in less than one month. Much of the international community welcomes the plan, hoping disengagement will lead to renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice comes to the region, later this week, for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and to ensure the disengagement stays on track.