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Battle over Gaza Strip Withdrawal Heats Up As Israel Ponders Next Move

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If Israel already has one foot out of Gaza, the other appears to be digging in deep.

After losing seven soldiers to Palestinian militants last week in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces may widen its nearby security zone by leveling Palestinian residents’ homes.

“Hundreds of structures have been marked for demolition,” Israeli media quoted the army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, as telling the Cabinet at its weekly meeting Sunday.

At the same time, the struggle over Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip made it to the streets of Israel’s largest metropolitan area over the weekend.

Waving Israeli flags high into the night sky and holding banners with the slogan “The Majority Decides: Get Out of Gaza and Start Talking,” some 120,000 people filled Tel Aviv’s main square and spilled out onto surrounding sidewalks. Observers noted the event could mark a turning point in the national debate over Israel’s presence in the Gaza Strip.

Both developments suggest that Gaza may continue to be the flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just a few weeks after members of the Likud Party rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the strip — and at the end of a week in which 13 Israeli soldiers and more than 30 Palestinians were killed there.

Regarding the demolitions, Ya’alon’s plan received a nod from the High Court of Justice, which reversed a temporary ban on the demolitions.

“We will not allow Palestinian terrorism to attain the capabilities it aspires to, which would threaten the heart of the nation even after our disengagement from Gaza,” Sharon said.

But given that Sharon’s proposed removal of troops and settlers from Gaza has been stalled by Israeli right wingers — to the embarrassment of the Bush administration which backed him — political sources said the prime minister may exercise some caution in Rafah.

Israel already has been censured for the dozens of Palestinian homes demolished there as troops searched for the remains of comrades killed in their armored vehicle May 12.

“We know that Israel has a right for self-defense, but the kind of action they are taking in Rafah, with the destruction of Palestinian homes, we oppose,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday during a visit to Jordan.

Sharon, a longtime champion of Israel’s settler movement, made a recent reversal by calling for a withdrawal from Gaza, the sandy strip of land between Israel and Egypt that is home to some 7,000 Jewish settlers and about 1.5 million Palestinians.

In a strange political twist, a rally that included dovish Israeli leaders backed the Gaza withdrawal plan proposed by Sharon, long a villainized figure among the Israeli left.

The rally opened with a minute of silence in memory of the 13 Israeli soldiers killed last week. Then speakers criticized the Likud Party’s May 2 vote against the pullout plan.

Citing recent polls showing an overwhelming majority of Israelis in favor of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, Shimon Peres, leader of the Labor Party, said, “Eighty percent of Israelis want peace and one percent is trying to block it. We won’t allow them” to decide.

“You are the majority of the country, you are defending your home,” Peres told the cheering crowd.

Among the speakers were Yossi Beilin, leader of a new political party called Yahad, and Ami Ayalon, the former director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Both men have drafted alternate peace proposals for the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Beilin, architect of an informal peace proposal known as the “Geneva accord,” called for Sharon’s ouster. Ayalon told the crowd that withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank was needed to preserve Zionism, but that the message would be conveyed only if Israel’s left wing shows more sensitivity to the feelings of Israeli settlers slated for evacuation from those areas.

Some politicians criticized holding the demonstration at the end of a week when so many soldiers died. The Yesha settlers council denounced the demonstrators as leftist extremists “dancing on the blood” of victims in Gaza.

At the rally, parents hoisted children onto their shoulders while other protesters squeezed their way past ice cream shops and falafel stands on Ibn Gvirol Street, the road lining Rabin Square, for a better view of the speakers. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally at this same square on a Saturday night in 1995, and the square subsequently was named in his memory.

“There have been too many unnecessary victims already, and I do not want to send my son to protect settlements,” said Batya Aviram, 47, of Tel Aviv. “We are sick of the sick occupation.”

Aviram held a sign that read, “The settlements are killing our children.”

Security was heavy at the demonstration, with police and military police patrolling the area and nearby neighborhoods. Snipers stood at the ready on a raised platform hovering over the square.

The protest was organized by a new organization called Mate Harov, the Majority Coalition.

Dina Chanoon, 80, traveled from Kibbutz Beit Alpha in northern Israel to be at the demonstration.

“I want peace, not war. Enough with these wars already,” said Chanoon, whose parents were among Israel’s early settlers. They helped establish Kibbutz Beit Alpha two years before Chanoon was born.

Chanoon’s husband, Ephraim, also 80, said this was not the country he had hoped to leave to future generations.

“Our sons were in the army, our grandsons too, and I don’t want our great-grandsons to also be serving in this way.” he said. “The settlers are being allowed to take over the country.”

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