Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered here Saturday night to press for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the first major public demonstration by the country's peace camp in two years.
While many of those in the crowd have been bitter opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they came out to express their support for his proposal to pull troops and Jewish settlers out of Gaza and to protest the rejection of the plan by Sharon's Likud Party.
Israel announced that it had completed military operations and pulled back its units from southern Gaza. Thirteen soldiers and 30 Palestinians were killed in intense clashes throughout Gaza over four days this week. The army also stopped the mass demolition of houses in the combat area, which U.N. officials said had caused more than 1,000 Palestinians to flee their homes.
The Israeli peace movement has been fractured and demoralized in recent years as a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings of passenger buses, cafes and other civilian targets in Israel have caused deep public revulsion and built support for Sharon's hard-edged security stance. But the recent rejection of the withdrawal scheme in a referendum of Likud members, followed by fierce violence this week -- including the public display of a severed head and other body parts of dead soldiers by Palestinian fighters -- inspired activists to return to the streets to try to rally the majority that, according to a series of opinion polls, favors the plan.
The rally brought together longtime activists from Peace Now, the main antiwar citizens' group, along with former prime minister Shimon Peres, leader of the once dominant Labor Party, trade unionists and other activists who have not shared a platform in almost a decade. They gathered in Rabin Square, named after Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995 who, along with Peres, championed the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians that have been buried by nearly four years of warfare.
"To leave Gaza, we need the majority to stop its silence," Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, told the crowd. "It needs to say, or even scream, what it thinks."
Ayalon, addressing Sharon, declared: "If you make progress, then we're with you, and if not, then you won't remain in power. Gaza is no longer a matter of politics -- it's a matter of life and death."
Sharon's office had no immediate comment on the rally. Leaders of the settlement movement opposed to withdrawal had demanded that the activists postpone the protest out of respect for the dead soldiers.
The crowd was an eclectic mix of young and old, some with small children. "I know I have to work hard now so that my son won't have to go to Gaza when he grows up," said Sharon Amit, 35, a worker at the state-run Voice of Israel radio service, who pushed her 3-year-old son, Rotem, through the crowd in a stroller. She said the events of last week had compelled her to attend the rally. "The feeling is heavy this week," she said. "It caused people to think again, to become more involved."
Galia Golan, an organizer of the rally, said people felt that 60,000 Likud members had in effect wielded a veto over the withdrawal plan -- which was endorsed by President Bush -- in the nonbinding party referendum two weeks ago. Sharon has said he would come up with a revised plan within three weeks. "We feel we're being held hostage by a small minority," Golan said.
Army officials said they cleared out of the Rafah area Saturday after recovering the remains of five soldiers killed there Wednesday. The army's attempt to retrieve the bodies and avoid a repeat of the body-parts spectacle of the previous day had led to a massive military operation and the demolition of dozens of houses that the army said had been used by Palestinian gunmen.
[Early Sunday, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at three targets in Gaza City, knocking out electricity in part of the city and slightly wounding at least two Palestinians, the Associated Press reported.
[The first strike targeted a building housing a branch office belonging to the Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Two boys, ages 14 and 15, were hurt in the attack, medical workers said.
[The second strike hit a residential building. The third strike knocked out power in the northern part of Gaza City. There were no further details on casualties or the targets of the attacks.]