Thousands protest Sharon's Gaza plan

Israeli Independence Day celebration draws crowds opposed to withdrawal


GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip - Tens of thousands of Israelis descended on this seaside settlement bloc yesterday in the largest public expression yet of opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.

The size of the gathering surprised even residents of the Gaza settlements, in which about 7,500 Jews live surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians. There was no official head count, but the police estimated the number of protesters at 70,000.

Some came in cars adorned with plastic Israeli flags, some in private buses, many of which had been arranged by residents of Gush Katif and the West Bank settlements. Many of the protesters came from the West Bank, while others came from towns and villages inside Israel's 1967 borders.

The protest, held on the 56th anniversary of Israel's independence, demonstrated how much public opposition Sharon faces as he presses forward with his unilateral "disengagement" plan.

Sharon proposed the withdrawal earlier this year, and polls have shown a strong majority of Israelis back it. But it has been heavily criticized by many members of his own rightist Likud party, who are to vote on the matter on Sunday.

Sharon has indicated that he might proceed with the plan even if the referendum, which would have no legal standing, fails. Still, he appeared to have enough support in the Cabinet and Legislature to win the vote.

In a television interview yesterday, Sharon said Israel would reserve the right to hit back if the Palestinians continued to attack after the withdrawal. "Israel's responses would be much harsher," he said.

The road to Gush Katif - a road where the signs warn drivers to watch out not for children or deer but crossing tanks - was backed up for miles yesterday. The two-hour trip from Jerusalem stretched into five or six, causing many people to miss the political speeches in the afternoon, including some of the speakers.

Yafit Elshalem, 28, drove in from Beer-Sheva with her husband and four children. The family pitched a tent in the sand as they prepared to grill hot dogs.

"It's exactly like the beach in Tel Aviv, which is also part of our country," Elshalem, an artist, said as her 6-month-old daughter clutched a plastic Star of David. "It's our Independence Day. This is part of our independence. We're saying that we are here."

Palestinians in Gaza seemed to take the visitors in stride. In a tiny Palestinian village nearby, Iyad el-Laham, 32, sat by a small store and waved as the Israelis passed. El-Laham, an English teacher, said he hoped this would be Israel's last Independence Day in Gaza, but that he did not believe it would be.

The protesters were taking Sharon to task as well. Timna Katz, 46, who was born in Israel and grew up in California, said that had Sharon not announced his plan, she probably would have celebrated Independence Day with a barbecue on her front lawn, in the West Bank settlement of Neve Daniel.

Instead, she walked with other protesters toward the beach, explaining, "The government of Israel wants to betray the people of Israel."

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