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Tens of Thousands of Israelis Protest Gaza Plan(REUTERS) By Allyn Fisher-Ilan JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 01/30/05 04:20 PM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7476610 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Israelis opposed to a plan to uproot settlers from occupied Gaza and the West Bank staged their biggest rally for months on Sunday to demand Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put the plan to a referendum.

Sharon´s initiative to remove all the Jewish settlements from Gaza and four of the 120 in the West Bank has helped revive hopes for a new Middle East peace following Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat´s death last year.

Protesters massed near the Israeli parliament as a helicopter hovered overhead, and security was tightened around Sharon´s office nearby. The plan to give up some land captured in the 1967 war has roused fears of violent confrontations.

The demonstrators chanted slogans and sang songs against the pullout. They held signs that read: "Expel Jews -- never again!" and "The people have decided Sharon is bad for the Jews."

Settler leaders said Sunday´s demonstration was the biggest since Sharon announced his plan last year.

But chances for preventing a pullout have decreased with Sharon´s formation of a unity government last year with the left-wing Labour party and with several opposition parties vowing to support the plan from outside his cabinet.

"I don´t know if this (protest) will help but at least we can express how we feel and we hope we will not be ignored," said Galit Kahune, a Gaza settler. "I very much fear this (withdrawal) will create a rift among the people."

Some right-wing hard-liners, including members of Sharon´s Likud party, spoke to the cheering crowd.

Former cabinet minister Benny Elon, fired by Sharon after he voted against the proposal in cabinet, called on the prime minister to resign, saying: "This people is loyal to its land and will not let you uproot them."

HARDLINERS, SETTLERS URGE REFERENDUM

While polls show the plan has the support of most Israelis and Western countries see it as a possible step to peace with the Palestinians, many settlers say it would sacrifice a Biblical birthright.

Hardliners and settler leaders have called for a nationwide referendum on the plan.

Sharon has ruled out such a move, saying opponents are just trying to delay the pullout, due to start this year. But some Likud members -- including his main rival and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- are in favor.

Hardliners have warned of violent clashes between settlers and Israeli security forces during a pullout, and have urged soldiers and policemen to disobey orders to take part.

"It is clear to me this will not pass quietly," said Shalom Fleiser, from the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. "I feel that people will be hurt during the evacuation."

"This situation will lead us to the brink of civil war," said Yair Kali, 48, of the West Bank settlement of Psagot.

The largest anti-pullout protest was in July when more than 100,000 Israelis joined hands in a 90 km (55 mile) human chain from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip.

Some 8,000 Jewish settlers live in heavily protected enclaves in the Gaza Strip alongside more than 1.3 million Palestinians. More than 230,000 settlers live in the West Bank, home to ten times as many Palestinians.

Palestinians would welcome an Israeli withdrawal any of the territory they want for a state, but fear Sharon´s plan is a ruse to keep hold of the much larger West Bank settlements.

New Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has brought a lull in a four-year-old uprising after he was elected to succeed Arafat, has said he would coordinate with Israel on the pullout if it is part of broader talks on statehood. (© Reuters 2005 01/30/05)


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