Thousands of Israelis Rally for West Bank, Gaza Pullout

Challenging their government's policy of holding on to the West Bank and Gaza, Israelis crowded Tel Aviv's central square Saturday night in the biggest rally by Israel's resurgent peace camp during nearly 20 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence.

About 50,000 Israelis turned out for the demonstration, waving flags and banners reading, "Leave the territories, for the sake of Israel."

Amid heavy security and police cordons that diverted traffic several blocks away from the square, the event attracted a broad mix of Israelis from all over the country, including families with small children, hippy characters carrying guitars and many of Tel Aviv's cafe-culture residents.

Zeev Hertzog, 60, predicted that as violence escalates, more Israelis will come out on the streets to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, "unfortunately it must get much worse before it will get much better," he said.

The rally featured Israeli entertainers, literati and politicians, who expressed sharp criticism of Israel's leadership.

Author Amos Oz called for the immediate establishment of a "peace party." Oz described both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "miserable leaders" and called for their replacement.

In a plea to Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Oz called on them to leave the settlements and relocate to needy towns inside Israel. "Come home," he said, "we will accept you."

Israeli entertainer Dudu Topaz praised Sharon for the results of Israel's military offensive in the West Bank last month, when Israeli forces invaded Palestinian towns and refugee camps in an attempt to root out terrorists. "Sharon is good at wars," he said. "Prove you are good at peace."

The Israeli peace movement had been virtually paralyzed by events over the past two years. First, the Palestinians failed to accept what most Israelis, including peace activists, thought was a generous offer of an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, all of Gaza and a foothold in Jerusalem. Then unprecedented violence erupted, sparking a conflict that has been punctuated by dozens of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in Israel.

Emerging from their shock, the peace camp, though smaller than before, is openly pressing now for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with or without a peace deal with the Palestinians. Opponents counter that a unilateral withdrawal would be interpreted by the Palestinians as a sign of weakness and would only increase the violence.

"I believe this occupation is very bad for us as Israelis," said Tali Goren-Sapir, 44, who came with her two sons from Kibbutz Gazit, a collective farming village near the line between Israel and the West Bank. "We've become a violent society."

Topaz and singer Yaffa Yarkoni, who performed at the rally, said they received death threats beforehand but still decided to participate.

Yarkoni, 76, is an icon of five decades of Israeli song who set off a firestorm recently by expressing solidarity with reserve soldiers refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Met by a cheering crowd when she came on stage, Yarkoni was weeping as she left it. She told Israel Radio she felt emotional because of the words of the song she performed, which call for the end of war.

"Is it possible, I hope it will be, that it will happen already, I am tired of these things," she said, echoing the words of a song. "I am tired of these wars. Let (peace) come already."