Israeli police have banned the latest settler protest against next month's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip. The move comes amid a political storm over a so-called "death curse" declared against the prime minister.

Jewish settlers hoped to bring 70,000 supporters to march on the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza, in a last ditch attempt to stop the Israeli pullout that is due to begin in mid-August.  But police banned the demonstration, which was set for next week, saying they will block any attempt to torpedo the withdrawal.  Police banned another mass demonstration earlier this month and the protest fizzled. The settlers say the ban is anti-democratic.

"This is very dangerous for the country," said settlement activist Israel Meidad.  "The right of free expression, the right to demonstrate, the right of assembly is sacred."

Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, 21 Gaza settlements will be dismantled along with four more in the West Bank. More than 9,000 settlers will be removed from their homes.

With settler protests failing to stop the pullout, a small group of Jewish extremists has decided on more drastic action. Twenty men dressed mostly in black held a mysterious religious ceremony and imposed a "death curse" on Mr. Sharon. 

The ritual set off a storm of condemnation across the political spectrum. Shlomo Riskin is the head rabbi at the Jewish settlement of Efrat near Bethlehem.

"It's built on superstition and voodoo. It has nothing at all to do with Jewish Law," he said.  "It's a very hateful act done by individuals who believe that they can curse other individuals and thereby blot them out of existence."

While it may be superstition, Israelis fear the death curse could inspire Jewish extremists to take the law into their hands. A similar curse was imposed on the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly before he was assassinated by a fellow Israeli in 1995.