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Demonstrators call for Israeli pullout

Israeli forces poised outside Gaza

Demostrators at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square during a peace rally on Saturday.
Demostrators at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square during a peace rally on Saturday.  

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled Tel Aviv's Rabin Square Saturday in a massive peace rally to urge Israeli forces to pullout of Palestinian territories "for Israel's sake."

As the activists gathered on the spot where Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Israeli tanks and troops were poised at the Gaza border, waiting for an order to begin a retaliatory strike for Tuesday's Palestinian terror attack in the coastal city of Rishon Letzion that killed 15 Israelis.

The rally's sponsor, Peace Now, an umbrella organization for several activist groups, has sponsored other rallies calling for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But Saturday's gathering was the first time the group has specifically opposed the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza.

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"The policy of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon which says continue to be in the West Bank, enhance your control over the West Bank, move there to new military operations is not acceptable to the huge crowd which is here and to hundreds of thousands and millions in Israel," said Tzali Reshef, a spokesman for the group.

"Get out of the territories now -- for Israel's sake," was the rally's slogan.

Reshef acknowledged what he called an understandable "crisis ... of the faith that Israelis have in the Palestinians' leadership," but said those in Rabin Square still hoped for renewed negotiations.

"We want peace, we want security, and we want to take our fate in our own hands," he said. "And the turnout tonight -- hundreds of thousands of people all over the country feel like we need to take a different path, that using force alone the way Sharon does it is not going to take us anywhere."

Israel debates retaliation

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer raised the level of uncertainty of retaliation Friday night, telling Israeli Channel 2 he had delayed the military operation in Gaza because government ministers had leaked details of the plan to the media.

The Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz reported Saturday that Israel's military was split on whether to strike Gaza. Some senior officers noted that Israeli troops -- many of them reservists -- were likely to encounter intense fighting in the densely populated, Palestinian-controlled territory.

There is also concern about the possibility of high Palestinian casualties in Gaza, where more than a million people live in an area about twice the size of Washington, D.C. And the Egyptian government has warned Israel against an incursion into the territory.

At the Jabalya refugee camp, where more than 100,000 people live, Palestinians on Friday piled up sandbags and stones in roadways in preparation for the expected Israeli push. One Palestinian said they would return to plant land mines in the sandbags if Israeli forces began moving into Gaza.

Israeli troops stand atop tanks near Gaza on Thursday.
Israeli troops stand atop tanks near Gaza on Thursday.  

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has said that Israel does not intend to occupy Gaza. Rather, he said, the Israelis will strike "areas where there is a concentration of suicide terrorists."

Critics have said there is no conclusive evidence that the Palestinian suicide bomber who carried out Tuesday's attack came from Gaza. There are indications he may have come from the West Bank, where the Israeli military recently ended a monthlong incursion.

The radical Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The U.S. State Department designates Hamas a terrorist organization. The group's military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as attacks against the Israeli military.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has strongly condemned the Rishon Letzion terror attack and promised to take action against those responsible. In a denunciation of terrorism issued Wednesday, Arafat also vowed "to confront and prevent any terror attack against Israeli civilians from any Palestinian side."

Leaks and casualty concerns

Israel began mobilizing reservists and moving troops and armor toward Gaza on Thursday, after Sharon's Security Cabinet authorized retaliation for the Rishon Letzion bombing. But reports in Israeli news outlets suggested Saturday that military action might be limited or delayed.

Israel's largest daily, Yediot Aharonot, reported the United States was putting extreme pressure on the Israeli government that could limit the extent of any strike. Another article quoted Palestinian sources as saying the strike was expected this weekend: The Palestinians said they had prepared by planting land mines and explosives.

Israeli military sources said the campaign would include air attacks in conjunction with ground operations but would not be on the scale of "Operation Defensive Shield," the Israeli military operation in the West Bank.

Another Jerusalem daily, Maariv, quoted IDF commanders as saying they had learned lessons in the Israeli campaign in the Jenin refugee camp, where hard fighting by Palestinians left 23 Israeli soldiers dead.

Peres, in an interview with CNN's "Novak, Hunt and Shields," said Israeli officials perhaps should have offered Palestinians their own state earlier in peace talks. (Full story)

"I believe that a Palestinian state is inevitable as soon as possible," Peres said. "When I think back on Oslo, I feel maybe we made a mistake by not offering a state of their own."




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