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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 18:51 GMT 19:51 UK
Israelis rally for Gaza settlers
Marchers in Gaza settlement
Organisers were surprised by the high turnout for the march
Tens of thousands of Israeli settlers have turned out in the Gaza Strip to protest against plans to evacuate settlements from the territory.

Roads were choked with cars and buses as people from across Israel joined the settlers for a peaceful rally.

Israeli forces looked on as marchers went from the main settlement bloc through Palestinian areas to the sea.

Members of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party are due to vote on Sunday on his evacuation plan.

Imagine living in a place your entire life and then being asked to leave - it is our land, it hurts, it hurts

In a statement to Reuters news agency, a senior official denied a report in Haaretz newspaper that Mr Sharon had threatened to quit if the plan was rejected by his party.

The plan, which calls for the removal of all settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank, has already been endorsed by US President George W Bush.

It is also widely supported by the Israel public as a whole.

'Sticking by you'

Police said around 70,000 people attended the protest, although settlers' groups put the numbers as high as 110,000.

"There are many more people here than we ever expected...," settler Dror Vanunu told Reuters news agency. "People from all over Israel have come here to say 'we are not disengaging, we are sticking by you'."

Others said it was unfair to uproot people from their homes. "Imagine living in a place your entire life and then being asked to leave," a man told the BBC. "I mean, it is our land, it hurts, it hurts."

People in a Palestinian area looked out of their windows as the marchers passed by.

One Palestinian man told the BBC he was glad Mr Sharon planned to pull out of Gaza but added he should leave the West Bank as well.

The BBC's Matthew Price
"They know they may have to leave this occupied land within the year"

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