TEL AVIV, Israel – More than 100,000 Israelis rallied Saturday night in favor of a pullout from the Gaza Strip, a massive show of strength by the long-dormant opposition movement.
Saturday night’s protest, led by the opposition Labor Party, followed a bloody week in Gaza in which 13 Israeli soldiers and 32 Palestinians were killed. Fighting continued early today, as Israeli helicopters fired missiles at targets in Gaza City, knocking out power and causing widespread panic.
Demonstrators packed Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to peace efforts, for Saturday’s rally. Israeli media estimated the crowd at up to 150,000 people, one of the largest rallies by Israel’s so-called peace camp since Rabin’s death.
Organizers hoped the strong showing would breathe new life into the opposition and help restart peace talks with the Palestinians, which have been stalled for months.
“Exit from Gaza, begin talking,” read a large poster over the main stage.
Some demonstrators held placards in support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has proposed withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, a volatile area where 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians.
Members of Sharon’s Likud Party recently vetoed the pullout plan, although polls have shown a solid majority of Israelis favor the proposal.
“This is a protest of the majority,” opposition leader Shimon Peres told the crowd in a fiery speech. “Eighty percent of our people want peace. One percent are trying to block it.”
Other speakers included Ami Ayalon, a former director of the Shin Bet internal security service, and Yom Tov Samia, a former military commander responsible for Gaza.
While the protest was set up weeks ago, organizers and participants said the latest fighting in Gaza gave the rally added weight.
“I think many people decided to come out today because of the soldiers getting killed in Gaza this week,” said Tal Kfir, a 26-year-old student from Tel Aviv.
Some commentators drew parallels with the popular groundswell of criticism that preceded Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an ill-fated 18-year occupation.
“After months, the peace camp is awakening,” Yossi Beilin, head of the dovish Yahad Party, told The Associated Press. “We will not let Sharon lead us by the nose.”
At an economic conference in Jordan, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday the Palestinians are willing to consider an Israeli pullout from Gaza depending on how Sharon revises the plan rejected by his party.
“I think that the Palestinians want to seize this opportunity,” Powell said after a 40-minute meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. “They want to know more about it, of course.”
Qureia described the meeting as “very, very constructive.”
Meanwhile, Israeli troops on Saturday withdrew from the Rafah refugee camp, site of a Palestinian attack last Wednesday that killed five soldiers, leaving behind a trail of destruction.
Dozens of homes and businesses were demolished, water pipes and electric cables were destroyed. U.N. officials said more than 1,000 people were left homeless.
The Israeli military said it had to secure the area for troops retrieving body parts of the five dead soldiers. It also reported heavy “collateral damage” from exchanges of gunfire with Palestinian militants.
The withdrawal came as Palestinians marked the anniversary of Israel’s establishment 56 years ago, a day known to Palestinians as “the catastrophe.”