40,000 in Trafalgar Square for pro-Israel rally

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The hardline former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given a hero's welcome yesterday at the biggest pro-Israel rally seen in Britain when he declared his country faced a "biblical battle" against terror.

The strength of Mr Netanyahu's speech to 40,000 people in Trafalgar Square, in which he compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, disappointed organisers of the rally, which was promoted as a call for peace rather than a statement of support for Ariel Sharon's government. Later, the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, described the remarks as "inappropriate".

Mr Netanyahu was greeted with chants of "Bibi'' as he was given the warmest reception of all the speakers by the crowd. The demonstration dwarfed two nearby protests by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and Jewish groups opposed to the occupation of the West Bank.

Israeli flags filled the square, as well as placards saying: "All Israel wants is peace'' and one giant banner unfurled directly opposite the stage reading: "An eye for an eye leaves us all blind."

Mr Netanyahu, a former commando who was Israel's prime minister from 1996-99, was in no mood to offer an olive branch to the Palestinians.

The only difference between Mr Arafat and Osama bin Laden, he said, was that the Palestinian leader had better public relations. His aim was to create a totalitarian terrorist state, something Israel would never allow to happen.

"The question is not whether Israel will fight, we have no choice but to fight. The question is whether we fight alone. Israel has made its choice, we have chosen to live and not to die, we have chosen to fight and we have chosen to win. Let us hope that every free nation follows Israel's example and joins this biblical battle.''

The different Jewish groups that organised the Israel Solidarity rally were anxious to ensure all shades of Israeli opinion were represented, and the former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, while condemning Mr Arafat, called for new talks with the Palestinians.

''This conflict does not have a military solution. The moment has arrived to return to the discourse and mechanisms of peace making. We want to extricate ourselves from the status of occupier,'' he said.

The rally drew together the majority of Jewish political and religious opinion from ultra-orthodox groups to liberal synagogues, as well as a number of Christian groups.

It began with an emotional rendition of a traditional Jewish song based on the words of a 17th-century rabbi, sung by an Israeli singer, David D'Eror. Later, there was a tearful speech from Sharon Evans, whose 19-year-old daughter, Monique, was left disabled by a Palestinian bus driver who careered into a group of Israeli soldiers in Tel Aviv, killing eight.

Although the organisers were keen to stress that the event was a general statement of a desire for peace, many in the crowd were quick to defend Mr Sharon's policies.

Adam Ross, 22, a politics student who had travelled from Birmingham, said the actions of the Israeli army in the West Bank would be shown to be justified in time.

He said: "They are fighting terrorism and when you are being threatened with violence so regularly you have to do something and it has to be big. Sharon has done something."

The rival demonstration by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign attracted about 400 people and their chanting could be heard throughout the afternoon, reducing the impact of a one-minute's silence held at the main rally. Police said there were five arrests at the Palestinian demo but the two groups were kept apart and the afternoon passed peacefully.

Ramy Aly, of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, said the event would inevitably be seen by British Arabs and Muslims as an endorsement of Mr Sharon. She said: "They are talking about an end to terror, but a bomb dropped from an F-16 is the same as a bomb taken into a shopping centre by a person."

Rayah Feldman, who organised a peace vigil at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church by Jewish groups opposed to the West Bank occupation, said many British Jews felt they were being wrongly pushed into supporting the rally.

"There are lots of Jews who question the actions of the Israeli government and we are being browbeaten into presenting a united front."