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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 January, 2005, 18:41 GMT
Israelis rally against Gaza plan
Protesters at anti-disengagement rally, 30 January 2005
Opposition to Sharon's plan remains intense
More than 130,000 people have gathered outside the Israeli parliament to protest against plans to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Demonstrators called on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to hold a referendum on the withdrawal, set to begin this year.

Mr Sharon's controversial plan has cleared a number of political obstacles but opposition to it remains strong.

Earlier on Sunday, Israel said it was ready to transfer several West Bank towns back to Palestinian control.

Political battle 'lost'

The Council for Jewish Settlers in the West Bank and Gaza - Yesha - said it was "surprised by the size of the turnout" on Sunday night, AFP news agency reported.

A huge banner reading "Let the people decide" hung over a stage set up for speakers to address the crowd.

Other signs among the crowd read "Sharon is tearing the Israeli people apart".

"When an Israeli government wants to pass such a difficult process, involving the expulsion of people from their homes, it can't do this in a fearful and capricious way, but should carry it out in a true democratic fashion," Bentsi Lieberman, head of Yesha, was quoted by the Associated Press news agency as saying.

Commentators say the demand for a national referendum on the withdrawal indicates a growing recognition by the settlers that the political battle is lost.

Earlier this month, the pro-withdrawal Labour Party joined Mr Sharon's fragile coalition government, restoring the prime minister's majority in the Knesset (parliament).

Mr Sharon's plan entails removing 8,000 settlers and the troops who protect them from Gaza and four West Bank enclaves, while keeping control of Gaza's borders, coastline and airspace.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Sunday that Israel was ready to transfer control of several West Bank towns to Palestinian forces in the coming days.

Mr Mofaz and Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan worked out details of the handover in talks on Saturday, which were described as "constructive".

Palestinian forces began taking control of security in Gaza last week after militants agreed to an informal ceasefire.


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