Israelis form human chain in support of Gaza settlers

Monday, July 26, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Joining hands and political aims, tens of thousands of Israelis formed a 55-mile-long human chain Sunday from the Gaza Strip to Jerusalem to protest Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to remove Jewish settlements from the coastal strip and part of the West Bank.

The cordon stretched from the Nisanit settlement at the northern edge of the Gaza Strip to the Western Wall, the sacred Jewish prayer site inside Jerusalem's walled Old City.

"You cannot expel Jews from their houses, houses they've lived in for three generations already, houses where they've raised their children," said Shimon Levy, 60, who stood with his wife along a stretch of downtown Jerusalem where protesters were packed as tightly as if they had come for a parade. "It's impossible to transfer the homes of Jews and give them to somebody else."

The demonstration was among the actions planned by opponents who hope to sideline the plan, which calls for removal of all 21 Gaza settlements and four others in the northern West Bank by the end of next year.

Sharon's Cabinet has already approved the plan in principle. But the evacuations and related arrangements -- such as providing compensation for homeowners -- will require separate government action, giving opponents a chance to mobilize.

About 7,500 Israelis live in the Gaza Strip, mostly in a bloc of settlements known as Gush Katif, while a few hundred others live in the four settlements slated for evacuation in the West Bank.

Most polls of Israeli public opinion show majority support for the pullout, but Gush Katif activists said they hoped Sunday's demonstration would display opposition from across the country.

Activists said it would take at least 100,000 people to complete the chain. Police estimated that 130,000 took part, according to Israeli media.

"The human chain is here to tell the prime minister that the people of Israel are with Gush Katif and the people of Gush Katif are one with Israel," said Rachel Saperstein, a spokeswoman for the Katif Regional Council who lives in Neve Dekalim, one of the Gaza settlements to be evacuated.

Sharon has argued that exiting Gaza would reduce tensions with the Palestinians and relieve the Israeli army of the need to defend Jewish residents, who live among 1.3 million Palestinians.

Palestinian militants fired a crude Kassam missile into a community center in Neve Dekalim Sunday evening, wounding six children, according to news reports.

The protest stretched over Israeli highways from the coastal plain in Gaza Strip to the streets of Jerusalem. There were some gaps because police required that some major junctions and highway stretches remain open to traffic.

Saperstein said participants were instructed to avoid confrontations.

"This is a nonviolent event by the silent majority," she said.

Israeli officials have warned in recent weeks that Jewish extremists might resort to violence to prevent the withdrawal from being carried out.

Tzachi Hanegbi, the public-safety minister, said Saturday that officials were concerned that extremists could target Muslim holy sites inside the Old City to trigger a chain reaction of violence that would derail any move by Israel to leave the Gaza Strip.

The Haaretz newspaper reported Sunday that security officials feared Jewish militants might seek to crash an airplane or an unmanned drone loaded with explosives onto the hilltop complex known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.

The site is holy to both faiths and has been a flashpoint for past violence. Officials fear such an attack could produce widespread fatalities and injuries to Muslims who gather at the mosque complex and invite a severe counterattack by Palestinian militants that would halt moves to remove Israelis from the Gaza Strip or West Bank, the newspaper said.

Security officials recently tightened security around Sharon.

Foes of the pullout have assailed the government's warnings as baseless and counterproductive, saying they were worried that such charges might be used by authorities to muzzle legitimate opposition to the withdrawal.

In other developments, six armed Palestinians were reported killed Sunday night in a clash with Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Tulkarem. An Israeli army spokeswoman said one of the gunmen was a local commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who had been involved in past attacks on Israelis. No other details were available.

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