In an earlier blow to efforts to block Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan, the Israeli parliament on Wednesday voted against delaying the pullout due to start next month from all 21 Gaza settlements and four of the 120 in the West Bank.

Led by ultranationalist rabbis, the 6000 or so protesters -penned into Kfar Maimon village for three days in the desert heat - massed at the gates but backed away from the biggest confrontation yet in a state polarised by the plan.

"We feel at this time it is not wise to confront the police and the army," announced Benzi Lieberman, head of the Yesha settlers council. "I request everyone who can to remain here and others to come back. We need to continue our struggle in the right way."

Palestinian boy killed

In the West Bank, where tension over the pullout plan is running high among the most radical settlers, witnesses said a group of them ambushed and stabbed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy to death. Medics said he was stabbed 11 times.

"We feel at this time it is not wise to confront the police and the army"

Benzi Lieberman,
Yesha settlers council

Most Israelis support the pullout aimed at "disengaging" from conflict with the Palestinians, but critics do not want to give up any land captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which they see as God's gift to the Jews.

Palestinians welcome a withdrawal from any of the land where they seek a state, but point to the fact that while Israel is giving up Gaza, it is also strengthening its hold on major settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Despite some scuffles at Kfar Maimon, which has become the main symbol of resistance to the plan, the mainstream settler movement has said it would not use violence. 

Settler plan
 

After abandoning the march on Wednesday, settler leaders said they still hoped to get thousands of people into the settlements by mid-August to reinforce the 8500 who are due to be evacuated.

But there also appeared to be signs of more people drifting from the protest and heading home.

The Israeli parliament has voted
against delaying the pullout

"I don't know where we will go from here but we have to keep fighting," said Ezra Friedman, 18, from nearby Ashkelon.

To stop any breakout at Kfar Maimon, police laid coils of razor wire, triggering fury among the hardliners who said it recalled the days of Nazi death camps. Some orange-clad protesters stood eye-to-eye with police. Others prayed and danced in the dark.

Knesset victory

Meanwhile, Sharon's camp was buoyed by parliament's easy defeat of three bills that would have meant delaying the withdrawal from between three months and one year. Opponents had hoped a delay might allow them to derail the plan.

"We had additional proof today that the government, parliament and the people too support disengagement," said Sharon.

Hardline Jews have threatened to
stop the pullout

Keen to see the pullout go smoothly, the United States hopes the withdrawal will help revive stalled negotiations on a US-backed peace "road map".

An upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence in the past few weeks has prompted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to arrange a troubleshooting mission to the region this week. She is due to arrive on Thursday.

Provoking clashes

Army officers fear settler radicals could try to provoke clashes with the Palestinians as a way of tying down troops and stopping them aiding the pullout.

Police said the stabbing of the Palestinian boy was under investigation and did not speculate as to motives.

Witnesses said he was ambushed by several settlers near his home at the village of Qaryout outside the Palestinian-administered city of Nablus. Israel radio said the attack followed a march by settlers into the village, which prompted scuffles with locals.

Palestinians have complained of frequent harassment and attacks by settlers during nearly five years of fighting. About 240,000 settlers live among 3.6 million Palestinians, and have themselves also come under regular attack.