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Tens of Thousands of Israelis Demonstrate Against Gaza Pullout


Tens of thousands of Israeli settlers and their supporters demonstrated Sunday evening in Jerusalem against the government's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and small portions of the West Bank. The protests come amid renewed efforts by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to ease tensions and perhaps resume peace talks.

A huge crowd of thousands of settlers and their supporters gathered around the parliament building, the Knesset, on Sunday to voice their protest against the government's plan to evacuate Jewish settlements later this year. Israeli television estimated as many as 130,000 protesters took part in the demonstrations.

Police were out in force blocking roads, and helicopters circled overhead as part of the security measures. By late evening the crowds could be seen dispersing. They included families and many children and adolescents carrying the orange banners that have become the symbol of their protest.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small ones in the northern West Bank beginning in July of this year. The settlers and their supporters are vehemently opposed to the idea and insist it at least be put to a national referendum, something the prime minister has rejected as a stalling tactic.

Sunday's protest comes amid renewed efforts by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reduce tensions and perhaps get back to peace talks in the near future.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel would hand over control of some West Bank cities to Palestinian security forces within the next few days. That news comes after Mr. Mofaz met with Palestinian security official Mohammed Dahlan late Saturday. In an interview with Israel Radio Sunday, Mr. Mofaz said there is now a new opportunity for peace that must be seized.

He said there is a chance to end terror and create a new relationship with the Palestinians that could lead to a peace agreement.

The defense minister did not say which Palestinian cities are to be turned over or exactly when the transfer of security responsibility would take place.

Palestinian sources, however, said their forces would assume responsibility for Ramallah first and then Tulkarem, Qalqilya and Jericho.

Israeli officials were also quoted as saying they are considering granting amnesty to suspected militants. Such a move is one of the significant demands made by Palestinian militants in agreeing to halt their attacks against Israeli targets.

There has been a decrease in Israeli military raids in Palestinian areas in recent days and a general decrease in violence.

Palestinian President Abbas has been working on getting militants to agree to a temporary cease-fire.

President Abbas is expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon February 8th and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is due in the region a few days before the planned summit.

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