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Thousands of Israelis Rally Against Plan to Leave Gaza - 2004-09-13

Tens of thousands of Israeli settlers and their supporters demonstrated in Jerusalem, Sunday night, to protest Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and a few from the West Bank.

Opposition to Ariel Sharon's disengagement has become increasingly vocal and, Sunday night, Israelis came by the tens of thousands to Jerusalem's Zion Square to protest.

"This land belongs to us, we fought for it and don't want to give it up," says one demonstrator.

That sums up the general feeling among the demonstrators. They feel betrayed by Mr. Sharon -- the man once known for his staunch support of settlements, but who now wants to evacuate some 8,000 Israelis from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and to also close down four small settlements in the northern West Bank. Mr. Sharon says the moves are vital for security.

Yesha Council of Settlements spokesman John Hastin says the plan is dangerous. "The aim of tonight's demonstration is to educate the public as to the dangers of the disengagement plan," he says. "We think the security of the entire country can be worsened as a direct result of the plan."

Many demonstrators carried banners calling Mr. Sharon a dictator and warning that disengagement will tear people apart. But, the rally remained peaceful and lacked the harsh rhetoric of recent days, when some settler leaders called on soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements and predicted violence if the disengagement plan is implemented.

Such talk was quickly condemned by Prime Minister Sharon. At Sunday's cabinet meeting, Mr. Sharon warned against what he called "incitement," that could lead to civil war. He says this is of great concern and he called on some of his ministers to speak out openly against such threats.

The stiffest opposition to the disengagement plan comes from within Mr. Sharon's own Likud Party and from some members of his rightwing coalition government.

Social Affairs Minister, Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party vehemently opposes dismantling any settlements and is calling for a referendum. He says the result of such a vote would be transparent and everyone could then accept the outcome.

Mr. Orlev is the only member of his party to remain in the cabinet. The others pulled out, earlier, in protest over Mr. Sharon's plan. The party is now to debate whether to quit the coalition completely.

Mr. Sharon already has a minority coalition, but, he has been provided a safety net in parliament through support from the opposition Labor Party, which favors dismantling settlements. But, Labor wants the plan to go further, to actually restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Recent opinion polls have shown that the majority of Israelis also support the disengagement plan.

Palestinians have been notably silent on the controversy among Israelis. Although they welcome any Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas, most fear the Gaza pull-out is part of Mr. Sharon's plan to then strengthen his hold on large parts of the West Bank.