JERUSALEM – Having all but lost the political battle, Jewish settlers said Tuesday they are still confident they can block an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with faith and defiance.
Hundreds of settler families demonstrated in a sun-drenched park across from Israel's parliament, promising to fight Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) to the bitter end.
The rally came as lawmakers in the nearby Knesset (search) building debated the plan, which would uproot some 8,800 settlers from their homes in Gaza and four West Bank settlements. Sharon prevailed in the vote later Tuesday with a 67-45 margin of victory.
The protesters said a defeat for their side would not dampen their enthusiasm nor weaken their resolve.
"I came here to tell the people of Israel that this is our land and my home," said David Pinipnta, 31, of the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim (search), speaking before the vote. "No power on earth can move me from it."
Menachem Friedman, an expert in the settler movement from Tel Aviv's Bar Ilan University, said the Gaza settlers' motivation and organizational ability gives them a strong hand in their battle against Sharon.
"I think the settlers' optimism is very realistic," he said. "The settlers have a very organized group while Sharon doesn't. An organized minority can often overcome an unorganized majority."
Clad in bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the motto of the Gaza settlers — "We have love and love will triumph" — the settlers sang, clapped, danced and prayed as religious-style rock singers and revered rabbis primed them with words of encouragement.
Schools in Jewish settlements through Gaza and the West Bank were closed Tuesday to allow children to attend the protest. At times, the gathering resembled a large family outing.
"The people present here, innocent children and the righteous, will win the struggle through prayer and faith," Rabbi Mordechai Elon said.
If Sharon's plan goes forward, Israeli security forces will evacuate settlers from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small enclaves in the West Bank over a 12-week period next summer.
The settlers say it will never happen.
"I think that large numbers of people will come to resist," said Gaza settler Micki Rosenstein, 48, recalling that 70,000 Israelis traveled to Gaza on Israeli Independence Day last May in a show of support for the settlers. "The disengagement will never happen."
Rosenstein said the resistance will be strictly passive. "We will never lift a hand against our soldiers," he said.
But as he spoke, small numbers of the so-called hilltop youth, a group of West Bank settlers violently opposed to giving up any of the territories Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war, wound their way through the crowd. In recent months, hilltop youth have repeatedly scuffled with Israeli troops trying to dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts.
Friedman said the threat of violence in the Gaza disengagement process was important, but doubted settlers would try to seriously injure security forces.
"If the settlers hurt or kill soldiers this is the end of the line for them, and they know it," he said.