Analysis: Israeli Peace March

Weekend Edition Sunday: May 16, 2004

Israelis Call for Gaza Pullout at Peace March



LIANE HANSEN, host:

Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at targets in Gaza City overnight. Ambulances raced to the site of several badly damaged buildings, including one that housed a Hamas-affiliated newspaper. In the past week, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in some of the worst violence in months. Some 30 Palestinians lost their lives and more than 200 were injured. Last night, Israelis packed Tel Aviv's Rabin Square demanding that Israel immediately withdraw from Gaza. NPR's Julie McCarthy was there and has this report.

SOUNDBITE OF SINGING

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

The Israeli media estimated 150,000 people thronged the square named for the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, making it the largest demonstration in years. The deaths of Israeli soldiers this week, coupled with the Likud Party's vote rejecting a pullout from Gaza, drove the demonstrators to the rally. It was organized by the umbrella organizations affiliated with Israel's left-wing movement, but the most recent public opinion polls show that a pullout from Gaza cuts across the political spectrum and that over 70 percent of Israelis want out of Gaza. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres told the crowd that they represented the country's majority and not the 60,000 Likud members who said no to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to unilaterally evacuate Jewish settlers and soldiers from Gaza.

Mr. SHIMON PERES (Labor Party Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `One percent of the country,' Peres said, `was blocking what most Israelis want. We must bid goodbye to Gaza,' he said.

There was a minute of silence for the soldiers who died this past week. In a country unaccustomed to losing so many troops in so short a time, their deaths caused public anguish. For the Palestinians, anguish over their high death toll was compounded by dozens of housing demolitions in southern Gaza. The UN reports that hundreds of residents in the town of Rafah near the Egyptian border have become refugees in the last three days. Secretary of State Colin Powell said today the US opposed the army's demolitions, but Israel's high court today cleared the way for more, citing security reasons.

SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION

McCARTHY: Demonstrators held aloft signs that read, `Evacuate the settlements; choose life.' Ami Ayalon, a former director of the Shin Bet security service, said seeing what he called the horror of more soldiers killed brought him to the rally, but he told the crowd the deciding majority was not present. He said most Israelis were keeping silent despite the fact they want peace and want to uproot settlements in Gaza as a first step.

Mr. AMI AYALON: (Through Translator) And the question is how to bridge this gap between the people who came here and the majority of Israelis who want to leave Gaza. And this is the real questions and most Israeli understand that Gaza is just the beginning.

McCARTHY: Organizers said the rally evoked memories of the public protests that eventually led to Israel's withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation that cost the lives of hundreds of troops. Last night's demonstrators sent the message to Ariel Sharon that if he pulled out of Gaza, the country would be with him. If he did not, protesters said his days as prime minister could be numbered. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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