Thousands gather to give peace a chance at biggest anti-war rally since intifada

Dozens of white balloons were launched into the warm night air to the sound of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine" as at least 120,000 Israelis left Rabin Square in Tel Aviv having warmly applauded repeated calls to withdraw from Gaza and return to the negotiating table.

Dozens of white balloons were launched into the warm night air to the sound of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine" as at least 120,000 Israelis left Rabin Square in Tel Aviv having warmly applauded repeated calls to withdraw from Gaza and return to the negotiating table.

The big weekend rally marked the re-emergence of the left-wing Israeli peace movement, marginalised for most of the last four years, as it joined forces with moderate centrists in the biggest display of anti-war feeling since the beginning of the intifada more than three and half years ago.

Evocative of the popular agitation which encouraged the withdrawal from southern Lebanon four years ago under Ehud Barak, the spirit of the meeting on Saturday night perhaps owed more to the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by a Jewish fanatic in 1995 in this very square after he rallied support for the Oslo accords. Shimon Peres, the Labour leader, told the rally: "The demonstration we're holding tonight is not a demonstration of the left. It is a demonstration of the majority."

Referring to the outcome of last month's referendum in which 100,000 Likud members voted by six to four against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to disengage from Gaza, Mr Peres said the country could not be held to ransom by a mere 1 per cent of the population. "We come here to say tonight: this minority, this one and only per cent, will not send us back to the wars, to the bloody path."

In one of the most affecting speeches Ylon Ashkenazy, the father of a soldier killed last year in Gaza, addressed his dead son, saying : "I'm your father and I love you ... You told me after every Israeli incursion, after every targeted killing, that we should leave Gaza."

Organisers of the rally were besieged with offers to participate by singers and bands after their call to withdraw soldiers and settlers from Gaza was lent new urgency last week by an upsurge in violence which began with the death of six soldiers whose armoured troop carrier was blown up in Gaza City on Tuesday. Several demonstrators said their ranks had been swelled by the deaths of 13 soldiers in this and two subsequent attacks by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

The theme of the demonstration, "The majority has decided. Leave Gaza. Start Talking", was a carefully negotiated compromise between mainstream Labour; the left-wing Yahad party led by Yossi Beilin, architect with the Palestinian politician Yasser Abed Rabbo of the recent "Geneva accords" peace plan; Peace Now; the Histradrut trade union bloc and some supporters of the Sharon disengagement plan.

Mr Beilin criticised Mr Sharon, claiming that he was "not the first prime minister that didn't want to make peace but he is the first that didn't even try".

Referring to the Oslo accords which gave tangible hopes of a lasting peace to both Israelis and Palestinians, Mr Beilin claimed the demonstration was declaring that "Yitzhak Rabin was right and Ariel Sharon was wrong.

While refraining from such attacks, even Mr Peres, a potential coalition partner for Mr Sharon if the Prime Minister loses the extreme right-wing parties by pushing ahead with the disengagement plan, warned: "We cannot uphold a puppet government that submits to the wildest aspirations of the extreme right." He also rejected Mr Sharon's contention that there was no Palestinian partner to negotiate with, telling the rally that the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, favoured peace with Israel and could "act if we allow him to act".

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