Israelis Protest With Human Chain

Israeli girls, holding a small Israeli flag, form a human chain on a road near the southern coastal Israeli town of Ashqelon, Sunday July 25, 2004. From Gaza to Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Israelis linked hands Sunday in a human chain in a massive protest against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to dismantle the Jewish settlements and withdraw the army from the Gaza Strip.
Flexing considerable political muscle, tens of thousands of Israelis linked hands in a human chain between the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, serving notice they will fight Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to move settlers and soldiers out of Gaza.

Sunday's peaceful and orderly protest, organized by the 240,000-strong Jewish settler movement, gained support from members of Sharon's own Likud Party who are opposed to the Gaza pullout.

The government will offer four alternative compensation plans to settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip and from four settlements in the northern West Bank, a Justice Ministry compensation committee said Monday.

The families will be compensated for the loss of their homes, loss of income and loss of businesses in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israel's Defense Ministry has mapped out a new route with for the separation barrier it is building in the West Bank, complying with a Supreme Court ruling that the original route infringed on Palestinian rights, security officials said Monday.

The new line includes significant changes and runs closer to the so-called Green Line, the frontier between Israel and the West Bank until the 1967 Mideast war, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

In 1967, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Palestinians want to establish an independent state on the captured lands.

The map will be presented Tuesday to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and later this week to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the officials said. Both were expected to approve the changes, they said.

As the demonstration was ending Sunday, violence hit Gaza. Palestinians fired mortars at Neve Dekalim, the largest Jewish settlement there, hitting a community center and wounding six 10-year-old Israeli children, one seriously.

Also Sunday, Israeli helicopters twice fired missiles at a building in Gaza City. The Israeli military said the militant Hamas used it to make weapons, but Palestinians said the structure was empty.

Though only 7,500 in Gaza's 21 settlements — along with a few hundred in four small West Bank enclaves — face evacuation, opponents of Sharon's plan fear it will lead to more pullouts in the West Bank and encourage Palestinian violence.

On May 2, the Likud's rank-and-file decisively rejected Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" plan in a referendum, signaling the start of the struggle that peaked Sunday in one of the most unusual demonstrations Israel has seen.

Men, women and children, many wearing orange baseball hats as a symbol of the project, lined the roads from Gaza to Jerusalem, singing the Israeli national anthem and other patriotic songs, linking hands in a show of solidarity and power.

Almost all the demonstrators were Orthodox Jews, underlining the religious character of the ideological element of the settler movement — Israelis who believe that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the biblical birthright of the Jewish people.

Activist Ariel Osterman, 41, who works to bring Jews to settle in Israel, worries about the absence of secular people in the chain.

"I feel that Zionism is breaking up," he told Haaretz newspaper. "The secular people built the country, but the knitted skullcaps are strengthening life here. The secular people have lost interest."

Crowd estimates varied widely. Organizers spoke of 150,000, while Israeli media guessed anywhere from 70,000 to 130,000. Whatever the numbers, the organizers achieved their goal — an almost unbroken chain of settlers and their backers from northern Gaza to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

"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."

Public opinion polls show that upward of 70 percent of Israelis support the disengagement program, which calls for the evacuation of the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005.

"No leader has the right to touch the land," declared Malka Taragan, who was wounded in the 1948 War of Independence.

Sunday's protest climaxed at 7 p.m. As organizers sounded the call on bullhorns, and the demonstrators clasped hands all along the route and sang the national anthem, Hatikvah.

Many banged their hands rhythmically against highway guard rails to emphasize their opposition to the disengagement program.

In the background, Israeli flags waved in a steady breeze, together with the orange banners of the Gaza settlers' movement.

"Only when the people of Israel are united will they be able to survive," said Yitzhak Fogel, 58, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. "When all of us stand here and hold hands, it demonstrates just how united we are."