TEL AVIV (Mar. 20)
Amnon Horev walked tall through the crowd of marchers rallying in support of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. His young grandsons stood on either side of him, small hands clasped in his large weathered ones. Horev, 70, a former paratrooper, fought under the command of Ariel Sharon, now Israel’s prime minister, in the 1950s. In 1967 he led his own soldiers as a company commander during the battle for east Jerusalem. He thought that the end of that war would bring with it the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Among his former soldiers are some of the leaders of today’s settlement movement.
"They got confused," said Horev of those former comrades.
Horev, a farmer in northern Israel, said he thinks religious Zionists were frustrated by their lack of a role in creating the state of Israel and so seized the opportunity in 1967 to do something "big."
Unfortunately, he said, their designs go against the original Zionist precepts of secularism and self-determination for all peoples.
But he is confident, especially, he says, because he knows Sharon personally. He is sure the prime minister will have the power and fortitude to carry out what Horev believes must be done — to oversee the Israeli military withdrawal and the evacuation of some 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank.
Horev and his grandsons made their way through the streets of central Tel Aviv on Saturday along with some 10,000 other protesters from around the country who rallied under the banner "Israel Is Leaving Gaza."
The turnout was considered low for what had been planned as a huge rally by a coalition of peace groups and left-wing political parties. The organizers failed to secure the support or participation of those who support Sharon’s disengagement plan but are not aligned with the peace camp. That group includes government ministers from Sharon’s Likud Party.
Settler leaders dismissed the rally as an "embarrassing failure," pointing out that they had managed to hold a demonstration in Jerusalem last month that drew tens of thousands of participants.
Those who came to the rally Saturday said they wanted to take back the Israeli street, to let people know that the majority of Israelis do support the withdrawal.
"There are voices fighting the disengagement because they are fighting for their homes," said Ela Orr, 25, an educator from Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. "But we are also fighting for our home, and you don’t hear enough from us."
She said she thought part of the reason for the low turnout was the ambivalence many Israelis on the left feel about coming out in support of Sharon.
"For so many years we have been against Sharon, calling him a war criminal," Orr said. "It is easier to support his plan than to support Sharon."
Yariv Oppenheimer, the secretary-general of Peace Now, had harsh words for the settler movement, which has threatened to thwart the withdrawal, scheduled to begin in July.
"Those who invite a civil war should know that we are ready for battle," he said, to the cheers of the protesters.
Interior Minister Ofir Paz-Pines struck a more conciliatory tone. The majority of Israelis want the disengagement he said, adding, "We want a normal, Jewish democratic nation." He cautioned against division between settlers and other Israelis.
"We do not hate you. Do not hate us. After disengagement we want to be one free nation in its land," Paz-Pines said.
Horev’s grandson, 10-year-old Nathan Berger, said he, too, is sure that disengagement was the right thing for Israel.
He said he hopes it will lead to a Palestinian state, saying that if the Palestinians have a state they will have less reason to fight Israel.
"Until now everything has been all talk," Nathan said. "It’s about time that something start happening."