JERUSALEM - Israel's beleaguered peace movement received a boost late Saturday when a surprise turnout of 10,000 supporters lent strength to its largely unheeded appeals for the government to halt its military escalation in the face of a 10-month Palestinian uprising.
"The size of the rally took us by surprise, since the peace movement has been virtually paralyzed since the start of the intifada and in the face of the growing violence," said Aryeh Arnon, one of the Tel Aviv rally's organizers.
"The rally gives voice to the feeling that the national unity government led by Ariel Sharon is leading the country towards disaster," said Arnon, an economics lecturer at Beer Sheva university in southern Israel.
But he admitted that the "peace camp" was still a minor movement and that the 10,000 demonstrators paled in comparison to the rallies held by right-wing hardliners, and even those of of the pro-peace lobby in recent years.
In parliament, the peace movement can muster around 30 deputies in the Knesset, including the 10 members representing the Arab Israeli community.
The rally, held under the slogans "No to a pointless war," and "We don't want to kill or die for the settlements," was organized in front of the defense ministry by the Peace Now group, which opposes controversial Jewish settlements built in the Palestinian territories.
The demonstrators massed on the square where prime minister Yitzak Rabin was gunned down in 1995 by a Jewish extremist infuriated by his peace policy toward the Palestinians.
They carried flags calling for the deployment of international monitors, as well as banners showing a Palestinian and Israeli flag on two interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Former Labor Party minister Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo peace accords and Yossi Sarid of the opposition Meretz party, also joined the demonstration.
"The liquidation of Palestinian activists is the only policy the government has and it leads nowhere," Sarid told the crowd, while appealing to Palestinians for moderation and warning them against attacks on Israel.
"Opposition to the liquidations is growing in Israel, not just for moral reasons but because it provokes bloody reactions from the Palestinians and because they hit innocent civilians and political representatives," said Arnon.
The Israeli army stepped up its much-criticized policy of killing Palestinian hardliners on Saturday, firing rockets which injured a militant in the entourage of Palestinian leader Marwan Barghuti in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
The attack came just four days after an Israeli helicopter killed six members of the hardline Islamic group Hamas in Nablus, a strike which also sprayed shrapnel on two young brothers, killing them both.
The Israeli cabinet gave the green light to the policy of "intercepting terrorists," and vowed to press on in the name of self-defence, saying the men it targeted posed a serious threat to Israeli citizens.
The Palestinians say the hits have wiped out more than 40 activists, prompting infuriated cries for vengeance across the Palestinian community.
The intifada, which erupted in September last year, has claimed 687 lives in 10 months of spiraling violence, including 540 Palestinians and 128 Israelis. Many more on both sides have been injured.
According to a public opinion survey in July, only 16 percent of Israelis favor a unilateral ceasefire.
And in sign that the backlash was already underway, a lone Palestinian gunman Sunday wounded 10 people, including eight soldiers, in front of the defense ministry in Tel Aviv, before being shot and critically injured himself.
Copyright © 2001 AFP