In a country of about 6 million people, 100,000 protesters or so (estimates ranged from 70,000 to 150,000) are hardly a majority. But in politics intensity can count for as much or more than sheer numbers. Those who joined hands to protest against a plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza constitute more than a minor obstacle to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, whose plan it is.
The protest was a marvel of logistics. To form an almost continuous line (except for a few junctions police kept clear) of people joining hands from Gaza to the Old City of Jerusalem, about 55 miles, required renting 900 buses and coordinating the efforts of tens of thousands of people. Such commitment suggests deeply held beliefs.
It is one of many ironies that such a protest should be directed against Ariel Sharon. Earlier in his career he was considered the godfather of the policy of establishing Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories in Gaza and on the West Bank.
As prime minister, however, Sharon believes Israel’s security will be better served by removing all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 West Bank settlements. Guarding those settlements simply costs too much in military spending and blood. Most opinion polls show a majority of Israelis agree.
Sharon has paid a heavy political price for his persistence. While he got his cabinet to agree to “disengagement,” his own Likud Party formally opposed the pullout. He is considering forming a coalition government with the rival Labor Party, which supports withdrawal from settlements, but that is hardly a done deal.
The intensity of these feelings should emphasize to the United States and to others who wish both Israel and the Palestinians well that the fundamental disagreements in the region are far from resolved. Disagreements intense enough to engender such a protest exist within Israel, and in recent days more opposition among Palestinians to the way Yasser Arafat is running the Palestinian Authority have surfaced. It could be years or decades before agreement on the central Israeli-Palestinian disputes can be resolved.
The best bet for well-meaning outsiders is to wait patiently for the parties themselves to come to enough of a resolution that a little outside mediation will do the trick. Until then, outside intervention is more likely to intensify disputes than to resolve them.