SDEROT, Israel (AFP) â€” Israel’s settler movement bitterly denounced their old champion Ariel Sharon Tuesday as they gathered in their thousands to protest the imminent implementation of the prime minister’s Gaza pullout plan.
“We voted for you, we believed you when you said that [the Gaza settlement] Netzarim was as important as Tel Aviv,” Eliezer Hisdai told the crowd of around 25,000 who gathered in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.
“You have no mandate to expel us from Gush Katif,” he said to rapturous applause.
Others carried banners denouncing Sharon as a traitor and a liar. “All the people who believed you were betrayed,” read one with an image of the premier in the background.
Avi Farhan, who lives in the doomed northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai, said that it was Sharon who encouraged him and his family to relocate to Gaza after they were forced to evacuate the Yamit settlement when the Sinai Peninsula was handed over to Egypt in 1982.
“Sharon: You gave me a house in Elei Sinai and now you are kicking me out of my home,” he told the crowd. “How can you of all people give up on the battle against terrorism.”
Organisers from the main settlers lobby Yesha put turnout at 40,000, although police on the ground said no more than 25,000 trooped out.
Under the terms of Sharon’s disengagement plan, all 8,000 Gaza settlers are due to be uprooted from their homes during an operation which begins in just 15 days time.
While the prime minister has argued that the withdrawal will bring security benefits, opponents of the plan have slammed it a capitulation to Palestinian groups such as Hamas.
The rally was only agreed after lengthy negotiations between Yesha and the police who had expressed fears that the demonstrators could be in danger from Palestinians in Gaza who have regularly targeted Sderot with rockets.
Police were on a maximum state of peacetime alert, with forces deployed in massive numbers to block an attempt by settlers and their supporters to march towards the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the south of the territory.
The demonstrators are expected to leave Sderot late Tuesday and head for Ofakim in the Negev desert, although some were still vowing to reach Gush Katif.
Police Spokesman Avi Zelba said 15,000 police and soldiers were mobilised in the south ahead of the rally.
“They will have to leave Ofakim on Friday morning and that will be the end of the demonstration,” said Zelba.
Downtown Sderot was transformed into a sea of orange, the colour symbolising the fight against disengagement, with flags and ribbons strung up from lampposts, traffic lights and trees.
Avner Shimoni, head of Yesha in Gush Katif, said: “Sharon’s family has to understand that they can’t stop a popular movement and the people are with us.”
Despite the show of mass opposition, Sharon’s office confirmed that the Cabinet would vote in five days to give final approval to the evacuation of a first group of doomed settlements.
There was no confirmation on which settlements would be voted on, but Israeli media said ministers would most likely approve the uprooting of settlers from the three most isolated: Netzarim, Morag and Kfar Darom.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz voiced fears that armed Palestinian factions would escalate activity in the West Bank after the pullout.
“From a security point of view, I believe the centre of gravity will pass to Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the Jewish name for the West Bank.
So far Israeli officials have been cool towards a US request to supply the Palestinian Authority with weapons and ammunition, fearful that such supplies would end up in the hands of factions and used in anti-Israeli attacks.