COUNTDOWN / 'Farewell Procession' in Gaza

Israel has never seen a protest movement as fervent, as well-disciplined, as well-oiled as the campaign to fight the disengagement.

Nor has Israel ever seen a mass movement appear to turn so abruptly into a lost cause.

So it would appear, at any rate, from an often reliable barometer -- and director -- of the Israeli consensus: the headline writers of mass-circulation tablid newspapers.

Settlers and other anti-disengagement forces pulled out all stops to make sure that a Wednesday demonstration in Gush Katif was a show of renewed force for a movement hit hard last month by a string of defeats in the Knesset and the cabinet.

Marshalling the still-abundant organizational and financial resources of the Yesha Council and regional governmental bodies in the territories, 600 buses were hired to bring 30,000 supporters of the cause. Organizers hoped that 70,000 more would come on their own.

Their object: to persuade the government and the people of Israel that opposition to the disengagement was so massive as to render the plan impossible.

But Maariv daily pointed to a very different conclusion. In a banner front-page headline, it labeled the demonstration "A Farewell Procession."

"Tens of thousands due to arrive today for their last visit to Gush Katif," read a second headline.

For months, pro-settlement activists have vowed to "flood Gush Katif" with as many as hundreds of thousands of loyalists, who would arrive from Israel, the West Bank and as far away as Florida to foil the disengagement effort by their sheer numbers.

The Wednesday demonstration was thus seen as an indicator of the ultimate resistance to the evacuation itself.

On paper, the march should have only have widened support for the settlers' cause among the wider Israeli public.

Soon after the march began, as protesters filed past the Palestinian hovels collectively known as Mouassi, a Qassam rocket slammed in, missing them by only a few dozen yards.

The attack might have lent weight to the settlers' arguments that the disengagement would bolster militants' claims to having triumphed in chasing Israel out of Gaza with sniper bullets, suicide bombs, and rocket salvos.

But if more than a year of intensive campaigning - and intense shelling - is any measure, the public's attitudes give every impression of being firmly fixed, with about two of three Israelis in favor of the disengagement, and a littel over one in four opposed.

To the extent that numbers matter, the Wednesday demonstration did little to suggest that the uphill battle of the settlers has turned in their favor.

As protesters gathered for their rally in the afternoon, police estimated the crowd at 40,000. Organizers, who had publicly predicted an even 100,000, said the actual figure was 60,000.