Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Sharon forges ahead with pullout plan despite Sunday's human chain protest

AFP AND AP , JERUSALEM AND NEVE SHALOM, ISRAEL

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will forge ahead with his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip despite a mass protest by settlers and opposition within his own party, his office said yesterday.

Sharon told participants in an officer training course on Sunday that he had no option but to implement his so-called disengagement plan as tens of thousands of opponents formed a human chain linking Gaza to Jerusalem.

"The prime minister emphasized that he does not intend to go back on the plan in light of the severe and dangerous economic and security situation that Israel would find itself in if it had no diplomatic plan," a statement from the premier's office said.

"Under no plan or agreement will Israel be able to hold on to all of the territories; the accomplishments which we have achieved as a result of the disengagement plan are things that we have never achieved before," the statement said.

Around 1,000 hardliners from Sharon's right-wing Likud party, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, gathered in Tel Aviv on Sunday night to denounce Sharon's plans to bring the opposition Labour party into government in order to steer the disengagement plan through parliament.

Though only 7,500 in Gaza's 21 settlements -- along with a few hundred in four small West Bank enclaves -- face evacuation, opponents of Sharon's plan fear it will lead to more pullouts in the West Bank and encourage Palestinian violence.

On May 2, the Likud's rank-and-file decisively rejected Sharon's plan in a referendum, signaling the start of the struggle that peaked Sunday in one of the most unusual demonstrations Israel has seen.

Men, women and children, many wearing orange baseball hats as a symbol of the project, lined the roads from Gaza to Jerusalem, singing the Israeli national anthem and other patriotic songs, linking hands in a show of solidarity.

Almost all the demonstrators were Orthodox Jews, underlining the religious character of the ideological element of the settler movement -- Israelis who believe that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the biblical birthright of the Jewish people.

Crowd estimates varied widely. Organizers spoke of 150,000, while Israeli media guessed anywhere from 70,000 to 130,000. Whatever the numbers, the organizers achieved their goal -- an almost unbroken chain of settlers and their backers from northern Gaza to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

"I have come to demonstrate against the disengagement of Jews from the land of Israel," said Alexander Slonim, 65. "If Sharon wants to disengage, he should do it to the Arabs, because they don't belong in the Land of Israel."

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