Tel Aviv, Israel The army announced new steps Saturday to thwart settler resistance to withdrawal plans, and thousands of demonstrators jammed downtown Tel Aviv to back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's orders for a pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
The demonstration, seeking to counter a recent string of large protests by opponents of the withdrawal, took place as military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israelis would be barred from moving to West Bank settlements slated for evacuation. The army, in an order issued late last week, banned Israelis from relocating to Gaza.
About 9,000 Jewish settlers are to be uprooted from their homes in the withdrawal, beginning in late July. It involves all the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements.
Settler leaders have called for mass resistance and pledged to bring in tens of thousands of supporters. In the past week alone, settlers staged a large prayer gathering at a Gaza settlement and angrily blocked traffic on Tel Aviv's main highway.
Speaking at Saturday's rally, Yariv Openheimer, head of the pro-withdrawal Peace Now group, challenged the hardliners.
"Those who want, and are asking for, a civil war must know that we are all ready for battle, the battle for democracy, the battle for Zionism, the battle for education, the battle for the future of Israel."
Police said about 10,000 people joined Saturday night's rally, which closed off several normally busy roads in central Tel Aviv. Organizers said as many as 50,000 people turned out.
With 700 police looking on, the crowd marched through the area before gathering at a central square for speeches by several Israeli politicians.
Battling fierce opposition within his own Likud Party, Sharon has managed to win parliamentary approval for the withdrawal but faces one last obstacle. If his 2005 budget isn't approved by the end of the month, the government will automatically collapse, forcing new elections and putting the withdrawal into doubt.
While settler leaders have called for peaceful resistance to the withdrawal, security officials have grown concerned that opposition could turn violent if the budget is approved.