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Thousands protest gaza pullout

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Tens of Thousands of Israelis Protest Gaza Pullout
Sun Jul 25, 2004 01:10 PM ET

By Gwen Ackerman

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - More than 100,000 Israelis joined hands in a human chain from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip on Sunday to protest against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull Jewish settlers from the occupied territory.

The biggest demonstration since the initiative was proposed in February sent a clear signal of the political battle facing Sharon, who has done an about turn from one-time godfather of the movement to settle land captured in the 1967 war.

"This chain is a sign of strength," said Anita Tucker, one of the 8,000 settlers living in heavily-protected Gaza enclaves alongside more than 1.3 million Palestinians.

"Most of the people love the land of Israel and don't want to see anything destroyed," she said.

Organizers said some 200,000 took part, while police estimated the crowd at 130,000.

Under Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from nearly four years of conflict with the Palestinians, all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank would be evacuated by the end of next year.

While polls show that most Israelis would happily relinquish Gaza as too costly in money and blood, many right-wingers are against giving up land to the Palestinians and say it would be a "reward for Palestinian terror."

Underscoring the precariousness of the settlements, Palestinian militants fired a missile into the main Gush Katif settlement bloc even as the protest broke up. Six people were wounded, one seriously.

The 90 km (60 mile) human chain stretched from the northern Gaza Strip to Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine. Police ordered an 8 km (5 mile) gap outside Jerusalem for security reasons.

Busloads of protestors descended on Jerusalem, many waving Israeli flags and dressed in orange caps or shirts -- the color chosen to represent the Gaza Strip's sub-tropical climate.

"We are expressing the fact that all of Israel belongs to all the people of Israel," said Yonatan Namdar.

As the protesters dispersed, Palestinian militants fired a missile which hit a Gush Katif settlement community center, wounding six people, one of them seriously.

Sharon won cabinet approval in principle for the plan, but only with the loss of far-right allies and that has left him scrambling to build a new coalition. The U.S.-backed plan would still face another vote before being carried out.

Palestinians welcome an Israeli pullout from Gaza, but fear the unilateral move belies Israel's intention to strengthen its hold on the West Bank.

Government attempts to remove unauthorized hilltop settlements in the West Bank, required of Israel under a tattered U.S.-backed road map to peace, have been largely unsuccessful as many are quickly rebuilt.

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