TEL AVIV, Jan. 11 (JTA) — Israeli settlers packed Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square this week to send a strong message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: Do not dismantle Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But whether Sunday night’s rally of an estimated 100,000 people has any effect on the Sharon government’s plans remains to be seen. The father of the settlement movement, Sharon recently announced a plan to dismantle or move some Jewish towns in the West Bank and Gaza as part of a plan to unilaterally disengage from the Palestinians if progress in peace negotiations is not made in the next several months. Sharon also pledged to remove illegal settler outposts in the near future to fulfill Israel’s commitments under the U.S.-sponsored“road map” peace plan. Police helicopters buzzed overhead and Israeli flags flapped in the wind as demonstrators hoisted signs at the rally reading “To divide our land is to defy God” and “Settlers are the real security fence.” A large blue-and-white banner was unfurled across the podium reading “Israel will not bend.” Several speakers sat underneath the banner, including several government ministers. A few Knesset members from Sharon’s Likud Party attended the rally, despite pressure from the prime minister not to do so. Settlers, who were bused in from the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the rally, say it is their biblical birthright to settle in the disputed territories, which they claim as part of the Land of Israel. The international community, including the U.S. government, agrees with the Palestinians that the settlements are a major stumbling block to peace efforts. Effi Eitam, the head of the National Religious Party and Sharon’s housing minister, vowed to pull his party out of the government should Sharon follow through on his plan to dismantle settlements. “There is no capitulation in the battlefield,” Eitam told the demonstrators. “Capitulation is defeatest, and our red line is made from the blood of those who have been killed.” Yet the prime minister’s resolve in carrying out his plans appears to be strong. “Things are decided not by demonstrators but by the government, my government, which adopted the road map,” Sharon told reporters in Jerusalem. “Although my government will make every effort to implement the road map, if we do not succeed we will have to take unilateral steps of disengagement under which we would have to relocate some Jewish communities and redeploy our armed forces in order to provide more security for the State of Israel.” Spirits were defiant but festive at the rally, which was held in the same square where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. The square is the site of frequent left-wing gatherings. The rally included loudspeakers blasting an unofficial anthem of the Israeli left, “The Song of Peace,” which Rabin sang shortly before he was shot. Psalm-reading booths were set up on street corners, young men wearing large knitted yarmulkes tapped out a steady rhythm in a drum circle and teenagers danced to Israeli folk tunes. “We came to protest the plans of Ariel Sharon, who wants to evacuate Jews from their homes. These settlements are important historically and for our security,” said Yiska Wurtzman, a 40-year-old math teacher from the settlement of Maon, near Hebron. She came to the rally with her seven children, ages 3 to 18. Young mothers pushed strollers, their husbands walking nearby, many of them with guns slung across their backs. Packs of young boys dashed across the square wrapped in Israeli flags. Many of the young people sported the sticker, “Kahane was right” — a reference to the slain ultranationalist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who advocated transfer of the Palestinians to Arab countries. “We came here so they won’t evacuate settlements. It’s our home, it’s our country,” said Batya Siegen, 15, from one of the largest Jewish cities in the West Bank, Ma’aleh Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem. Many Tel Aviv residents hurried past the rally, a sign of the disconnect between the rallying settlers and the residents of Israel’s largest metropolitan area. But Yechiam Baruchi, an accountant who lives in the city, said he had come to support the demonstrators. “I’m here to identify with the protest against dismantling the settlements in the Land of Israel because I think if we fold, it will be considered a victory to terrorism. The settlers are safeguarding peace,” he said. “If we return to the borders of 1967, we won’t have a chance of survival.” Closing his speech to the crowd, Eitam told them to be steadfast. “We returned to this land to build it, love it, and defend it. With the help of God, we will be victorious,” he said. “We will stand up to any challenge.” The crowd roared its approval.JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.
Settlers take to the streets