JERUSALEM Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters massed in Jerusalem on Sunday to protest Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate four settlements in the West Bank. Sharon accused his hard-line opponents of inciting civil war.
The rally followed warnings by settler leaders of possible violence and civil strife if Sharon goes through with his plan, which was denounced last week in a petition by prominent rightists as "ethnic cleansing of Jews from their homeland" and "a crime against humanity."
Demonstrators, many of them Orthodox Jews and teenagers from the settlements, marched from Zion Square to Sharon's official residence as calls boomed out over a loudspeaker: "Sharon resign! Sharon go home! The people are not with you!"
Numbering about 240,000 in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the settlers have called the withdrawal, planned for next year, a reward for terrorism, warning that it will encourage more Palestinian violence while dividing Israelis.
At Sunday's rally, a huge banner on the stage declared: "The disengagement is tearing the nation apart."
Another poster denounced Yonatan Bassi, the official in charge of the government agency set up to assist settlers who are to be evacuated. "We will not forgive," the poster said.
There were also comparisons with the Holocaust. Annette Siegal, a professor of pathology at Tel Aviv University, wore a yellow Jewish star, similar to the one Nazis forced Jews in Europe to wear. She said she wanted to stop another deportation of Jews like the one she experienced with her parents in France during World War II. "No more Jewish transfer" said her homemade sign.
Bentzi Lieberman, the head of the settlers' umbrella council, told the crowd that there would be a determined fight against the withdrawal plan, but "we will do everything we can to avoid a rift in the people that will lead to civil war."
However other settler leaders have warned of possible violence and civil strife, and last week's rightist petition urged soldiers and police officers to disobey orders to remove settlers.
Sharon lashed out at his critics at the weekly meeting of his Cabinet.
"We are witnessing in recent days the gravest campaign of incitement, with calls that in fact aim at civil war," Sharon said.
A report in the Haaretz newspaper said that security officials are concerned that Jewish militants might try to halt the withdrawal plan by attempting to assassinate Sharon or to attack the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, the third holiest shrine in Islam, on the plateau known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told foreign reporters on Sunday that there was a "serious threat" of violence among Israelis. "I hope there will be no civil war in Israel, but I fear that there will be bloodshed," he said.
One leaflet distributed at Sunday's rally, signed by a group calling itself The Jewish National Front, demonstrated the potential for violent confrontation. The handbill criticized the slogan of the Gaza Strip settlers, "We have love and it will win." The slogan, taken from the lyrics of a popular song, is intended to appeal to broad sectors of the Israeli public.
"You can't win only with love," said the leaflet. "As long as Sharon wants to expel Jews and hand over areas of the land of Israel, as long as Sharon wants to see the blood of settlers, men in cages, women beaten by brutal police officers, youths being dragged from their parents and land, synagogues burned and turned into mosques, the style and technique must be changed. ... In war, as in war."