Settler movement launches massive anti-pullout demonstration near Knesset
Organizers say 24-hour protest will be biggest ever against disengagement
Tens of thousands of anti-disengagement protesters gathered in Jerusalem yesterday evening for what they hope will be the largest demonstration yet against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's pullout plan. The protest rally is slated to last 24 hours.
No official figures on the number of people in attendance were released, but Channel 1 television reported that some 150,000 people were there and organizers said close to quarter of a million.
Protesters, who are demanding that the pullout plan be put to a national referendum, massed near the Knesset as a helicopter hovered overhead, and security was tightened around Sharon's office nearby. The plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and portions of the northern West Bank has roused fears of violent confrontations.
The head of the Yesha settlers council, Bentzi Lieberman, told the crowd that "when an Israeli government wants to go through with such a difficult process, involving the expulsion of people from their homes, it can't do this in a fearful and capricious way, but should carry it out in a true democratic fashion so that it might be acceptable." Yesha is the Hebrew acronym for the West Bank and Gaza.
Likud rebel leader Uzi Landau also spoke at the rally. "We demand a referendum; let the nation decide," he said. "One can support the disengagement or be against it, but we must agree on the rules of the democratic game .... Ariel Sharon, you have no mandate to evacuate Jews."
Likud MK David Levy told the demonstrators that Sharon's government is guilty of incitement against the right wing more so than any other in the history of Israel, and that it could be responsible for a rift among the people.
"We say this now in Jerusalem, Israel's eternal capitol, in front of the parliament: Such a thing as this has never happened, the voice of the majority is not being heard," Levy said.
Former cabinet minister Binyamin 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."
Settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein said the highlight of the gathering would be a mass pledge to go to Gaza to prevent the evacuation.
Brigadier General Shimon Koren, deputy commander of the Jerusalem police district, said forces were on hand and ready to handle any illegal activities planned by radical right-wing activists.
Some 2,000 members of the Jerusalem Police, reinforced by teams from other districts, were deployed in the streets surrounding the Knesset and the Prime Minister's Office.
Other emergency forces, including fire fighters and paramedics, were also stationed at the site of the demonstration.
While polls show the disengagement plan has the support of most Israelis, and Western countries see it as a possible step toward peace with the Palestinians, many settlers say it will sacrifice a biblical birthright.
"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 Kahane, a Gaza settler.
"This situation will lead us to the brink of civil war," said Yair Kali, 48, of the West Bank settlement of Psagot.