Thousands protest Israel's Gaza pullout
Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered Wednesday in the Gaza Strip's largest settlement bloc to rally against the government's plan to withdraw from the area, trying to maintain a carnival-like atmosphere of defiance despite a Palestinian rocket attack.
Though the crowd filled the central lawn at Neve Dekalim, the largest Gush Katif settlement, the turnout of about 40,000 was less than half the number the settlers expected, and some residents dismissed the prediction that thousands of the visitors would stay to join resistance to the pullout, set for July or August.
Demonstrators at the Gaza settlement said the rocket attack showed that Sharon's pullout plan would only encourage more violence. Sharon "is retreating under fire and with his tail between his legs," said Benni Elon, a member of parliament from a pro-settler party.
Despite Abbas' efforts to rein them in, the militants are likely to step up attacks as the summer pullout approaches, trying to show that they are forcing the Israelis to leave. Also, the Israeli military is warning that militant groups in the West Bank are preparing a new round of violence for the fall, after the pullout, to try to expel the Israelis.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank has the support of about two-thirds of his people, according to polls. But the opposition, based on religion and ideology, is tough and loud.
Adopting orange as the color of their protest, settlers and their backers with orange flags, banners and T-shirts gathered on a warm, sunny day in Neve Dekalim, a village of red-roofed houses with about 2,500 settlers next to Khan Younis, a poverty-stricken Palestinian city of 100,000, with a squalid refugee camp of 60,000 fenced off from the settlement.
Explaining his pullout plan, Sharon said maintaining 21 settlements with 8,500 residents among more than 1 million hostile and poverty-stricken Palestinians in Gaza was an untenable proposition. Also, pulling out of the four small settlements in the northern West Bank would solidify Israel's hold on main settlement blocs where most of the 235,000 West Bank settlers live.
Though many of the settlers were strident in their denunciations of Sharon and his policies, leaders insisted resistance would be nonviolent.
However, far-right member of parliament Arieh Eldad called for violent resistance. "There must be resistance tat includes willingness to go to jail," he said.
Sara Lemann, from New Orleans, La., worried that the current pullout would lead to evacuation of more West Bank settlements. "I think we all feel that we could be next," she said. "I feel Jerusalem could be next."
Reuma Harari, who left the West Bank with her three children early in the morning to attend the Gaza rally, seemed as bewildered as angry. "It's as if a black hole were opening up," she said. "It imparts a sense of great instability."
Avner Shimon, head of the Gaza regional council, said he expected the visitors to leave after Passover.
"People are coming to enjoy themselves, see the place and hug us and to tell us they are with us. I estimate that nobody will remain when it is over," he told Israel Army Radio.