NEVE SHALOM, Israel – Singing the national anthem and waving Israeli flags, tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters joined hands to form a human chain along a 55-mile route, serving notice they will fight Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search).
In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot to death six members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (search) in a gunbattle in the town of Tulkarem, the military said. Palestinians officials said five militants and a teenage bystander were shot in a restaurant. The Aqsa movement, which is loosely linked to Yasser Arafat's (search) Fatah (search) movement, has claimed responsibility for many suicide bombings in Israel.
Sunday's demonstration was the largest yet against the plan to dismantle Jewish settlements and pull Israeli forces out of the Gaza Strip. The plan, which has strong international support, including from the United States, has cost Sharon his parliamentary majority and left him fighting for political survival.
Police put the turnout as 70,000 but organizers spoke of 150,000 participants. Israeli media estimates ranged from 70,000 to 130,000, including some members of Sharon's own Likud Party (search).
People of all ages lined the dusty roads from Gaza to Jerusalem, many wearing orange baseball caps, a reference to the color of the Gaza settlers' movement, which organized the protest.
"I have come to demonstrate against the disengagement of Jews from the land of Israel, " said Alexander Slonim, 65, of the southern city of Beersheba. "If Sharon wants to disengage, he should do it to the Arabs, because they don't belong in the Land of Israel."
Hundreds of buses carried people to various points along the route, which began at that northern Gaza settlement of Nissanit and ended 55 miles later at Jerusalem's Western Wall, with a few broken stretches in between.
The daylong event climaxed at 7 p.m. when organizers with bullhorns called on demonstrators to clasp hands and sing "Hatikvah," the national anthem. Many waved Israeli flags and the orange banners of the settler movement.
"When all of us stand here and hold hands, it demonstrates just how united we are." said Yitzhak Fogel, 58, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak.
As the demonstration was winding down, Palestinians fired mortars at a Jewish community center in the largest Gaza settlement, Neve Dekalim, wounding six Israeli children, one seriously. Hours later, Israeli troops firing from tank-mounted machine guns killed a 50-year-old woman Palestinian woman in Khan Younis, a few miles from Neve Dekalim.
Almost all the demonstrators were Orthodox Jews, who believe the West Bank and Gaza Strip are part of the biblical birthright of the Jewish people. Polls show a majority of Israelis in favor of Sharon's plan to abandon the Gaza Strip, which has less historical significance than the West Bank.
Sharon announced in December that he planned to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by the end of September 2005. Opponents fear plan will encourage Palestinian violence and lead to further pullouts in the West Bank, home to vast majority of Israel's 240,000 settlers. About 7,500 Jewish settlers live in the Gaza Strip among 1.3 million Palestinians. Both territories were captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
The plan drew such fierce opposition from hard-liners that the prime minister fired two critics in his own Cabinet, costing him the support of his Likud Party, which rejected the plan in a May 2 party referendum.
Defying the vote, Sharon won Cabinet approval in June for a watered-down version of the pullout, but still has to get approval from Parliament.
Struggling to hold onto power, Sharon is trying to form a coalition with Shimon Peres' left-center Labor Party. But hard-liners in Sharon's government — including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom — oppose joining forces with Peres.
Shalom gathered some 1,000 members of Sharon's Likud Party in Tel Aviv late Sunday, where participants spoke out against a Likud-Labor alliance and the withdrawal plan.