The following was written by activists in Gush Shalom (Peace Block) about the May 15 Get Out Of Gaza demonstration in Israel.
Tel Aviv - Rabin Square started filling long before the scheduled time, and by 8 pm the crowd of 150,000 was spilling off into the adjacent streets. These people were motivated by the veto of Sharon's half-hearted plan to withdraw from Gaza by registered members of the Likud party and by the blows suffered by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. The army learned the hard way that invading Palestinian towns and refugee camps inside armoured vehicles does not always render the Israeli forces invulnerable.
All in all, the planned rally was being treated as a major event before it took place. The right-wingers who demanded that it be cancelled out of respect for the fallen soldiers merely helped to publicize it.
While striving very hard to present a common front, the coalition of political parties and mainstream extra-parliamentary groups that initiated the rally had a fundamental difference to cover up: some accepted the basic framework of Sharon's "unilateral withdrawal from Gaza"; others advocated renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians touching upon the West Bank as well and aimed at achieving not only withdrawal but peace.
The compromise slogan eventually chosen was "Leave Gaza and start talking."
Still, on the podium covered with this slogan, the differences immediately became evident. Ami Ayalon, former Shabak (security intelligence) head turned peacemaker, said, "I believe in Sharon's sincerity. We must not treat the settlers as enemies. Settlements can only be evacuated by one who feels great pain and empathy." (This did not go over well with the audience.)
Tsali Reshef of Peace Now had a different view: "We have not the slightest trust in Sharon. We know that he wants to withdraw from Gaza in order to keep the West Bank. But just as he was forced to give up Gaza, we will force him to give up the West Bank." (Applause.)
Reserve general turned businessman Yom-Tov Samiya told the crowd: "I support Sharon's concept of limited withdrawal from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank. The alternative is headlong flight like from Lebanon, which will encourage terrorism." (He got very scattered applause. Many felt that a person who initiated the concept of destroying Rafah houses to widen the "security belt" should not have been on the podium.)
Yosi Beilin, initiator of the Geneva agreement and head of the Meretz/Yachad party, said: "Those who refuse peace have tried everything: targeted killings that are not always very targeted, re-invading the West Bank and Gaza, destroying fields and groves and houses. The one thing that they did not try is to make peace. Those who say that there is no partner are those who don't want to talk!" (The biggest applause of the evening.)
And then a surprise speaker: "My name is Eliezer Bidu. I live in the settlement of Omarim, south of Hebron. I went there 14 years ago because I was promised quality of life for my family. What a quality of life! A few months ago our car was shot at. A bullet passed near the head of my baby son. I want to get out of there. Not to live guarded by soldiers day and night, on disputed land among neighbours who hate me. I want to live in the real Israel, and I am not the only one."
All this time, the radical groups who had been excluded from the podium, were busy among the enormous crowd, adding the points that none of the speakers made. On the day before the rally, organizers announced that signs advocating refusal to serve in the military in the Occupied Territories would be banned. But nobody stopped Courage to Refuse and Yesh Gvul from holding up signs reading "It will not end if you don't refuse!," while the Refuser Parents Forum collected signatures in support of the six imprisoned refusers.
We ourselves were busy distributing Gush Shalom leaflets: "It should be said in clear words: Arafat is the partner; an agreement without his signature has no value; he is the only one who can convince his people to a compromise."
The whole spectrum of moderate and radical groups was there with stalls and stickers: Women's Peace Coalition, the Geneva Initiative, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan, the anarchists ("two states for two people is two states too many") and many more.
And there was a forest of signs, official and unofficial, printed and handmade: "Evacuating settlements is choosing for life"; "Stop the apartheid wall"; "Life is cheap, settlements are expensive"; "The life of our sons is more important than the settlements"; "Dear settlers, come back home."
A man in a wheelchair rolled energetically through the crowd, on his chest a sign: "More money for the handicapped - less for the territories. How long will we get 1,201 shekels (about $250 U.S.) per month?"
A young activist collected signatures against the plan of the Tel Aviv municipality to turn Rabin Square into a parking lot. "If you don't sign, where will you demonstrate next year?"