JERUSALEM – Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their backers demonstrated in Jerusalem on Sunday against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan to evacuate all settlements from Gaza and four West Bank enclaves in a rally held amid warnings of assassinations and civil war.
The withdrawal plan has upset the Israeli political scene since it was announced last year, turning Sharon's backers into opponents and detractors into supporters. Skeptical Palestinians believe the whole plan is a trick to annex large parts of the West Bank (search) to Israel.
The demonstrators filled downtown Jerusalem, shutting down much of the city, to protest the planned pullout.
Most of those filling downtown were Orthodox Jews, many of them teenage girls in long skirts or youths wearing knit skullcaps. A huge banner behind the stage set the theme: "Disengagement tears the people apart." Many waved blue-and-white Israeli flags.
Organizers pledged to prevent incitement to violence, but there were also some ominous signs.
One placard warned that the head of Sharon's disengagement committee would "not be forgiven." Another showed a picture of Sharon under the words, "The Dictator."
Another sign said, "A time to love, a time to hate," quoting the biblical Book of Ecclessiastes.
After the demonstration, hundreds of participants, many holding candles, marched to a square near Sharon's official residence, where they called on the prime minister to resign. The rally dispersed peacefully.
At a Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Sharon warned of statements of "grave incitement" that were "directing toward a civil war."
"There are not enough voices being heard among the Cabinet on this subject," Sharon complained.
The issue of incitement has been especially sensitive in Israel since the Nov. 4, 1995, assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) by an ultra-nationalist Jew opposed to Rabin's policy favoring territorial concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. Some Israeli commentators have compared the current atmosphere to the vitriolic period preceding Rabin's death.
Mainstream settler leaders rejected Sharon's statement as an attempt to paint all of them with the extremist brush.
"We are completely against violence or threats of violence," Settlers Council spokesman Josh Hasten said. "These blanket statements unjustly put an entire group into a category."
Israel's minority Orthodox Jews revere the West Bank as part of the biblical Jewish homeland.
"This is the land of Israel, not the land of Ishmael," ancestor of Islam, said Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a spiritual leader of the settlers, to cheers from the crowd.
Polls show that the large secular Jewish majority favors steps to distance Israel from the Palestinians, including an exit from Gaza and removal of some West Bank settlements.
Opposition to Sharon's plan comes from his traditional constituency. For decades, Sharon was the prime mover behind creation and expansion of Jewish settlements.
During Sunday's demonstration, organizers showed a series of video clips from recent years in which Sharon spoke in favor of settlements and against giving up territory to the Palestinians.
His change of heart has shocked supporters and left traditional opponents skeptical. In the months that have followed his first pronouncement at the end of last year, Sharon has tried to persuade both sides of his sincerity — convincing many that he has abandoned his former ideology of giving up little or no territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Sharon has explained that the Jewish presence in Gaza has become untenable, with about 8,000 Jews in 21 settlements living along 1.3 million Palestinians.
Sharon said pulling out of Gaza would help Israel solidify its hold on parts of the West Bank where most of the 240,000 settlers live and would pre-empt international peace initiatives he feels would be unfavorable to Israel.
Sharon refuses to coordinate the pullout with Palestinian officials, charging that Yasser Arafat's administration is responsible for four years of violence. Palestinians counter that Israeli military moves lead to violence, and they believe that Sharon's plan amounts to a West Bank land grab to prevent them from forming a state.
Sharon's domestic opposition is just as formidable. Twice he has lost internal Likud Party votes on his plan by wide margins, but he insists he will carry it out regardless.
Last week, a group of prominent Israeli hard-liners published a call to Israeli soldiers to disobey orders to carry out the withdrawal.
On Friday, settler leaders said Sharon had no mandate to carry out the withdrawal, calling the plan a "Nazi act" and warning it could lead to civil war.
"When you feel the winds, many feel the prime minister has crossed all the lines and is no longer seen as legitimate," Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for Gaza Strip settlers, said Sunday. "This prepares the ground for violence."