JERUSALEM — Thousands of Israeli leftists rallied Saturday night to demand that Ariel Sharon make peace with the Palestinians, while the Israeli prime minister, under pressure, delayed a planned military attack on the Gaza Strip.
With Israeli retaliation for a devastating suicide bombing Tuesday widely anticipated, tanks and troops remained arrayed along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. But they held off launching an assault, at least for the time being.
The delay came after Israeli newspapers reported details of the planned operation and quoted senior army officers questioning its wisdom.
The Israeli army regards its just-concluded six-week offensive in the West Bank as a successful campaign to uproot terrorists. But invading the densely populated Gaza Strip, where about 1.2 million people live cramped in refugee camps and overgrown towns, is seen as a far more dangerous and potentially deadly mission.
Gaza is the headquarters of Hamas, the radical Islamic organization that has engineered numerous suicide bombings and might have been responsible for the most recent one. Hamas operatives and other Gaza-based militants have had ample time to prepare for an Israeli invasion--undoubtedly a consideration taken into account by the army. And the top suspects whom Israel seeks have been able to go into hiding.
Sharon Facing U.S. and European Pressure
In addition to facing the extra complexity that a Gaza attack would involve, Sharon is under pressure from the U.S. and Europe to allow a new diplomatic drive, sponsored by Washington and Arab states, to make headway toward peace.
Launching another large-scale military offensive after the massive West Bank effort would risk being seen as excessive, Israeli analysts said. With the end of the 39-day standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Friday, the army withdrew from that city and the West Bank operation formally came to a close.
Sharon does not want to upset what he sees as a favorable diplomatic climate following his meeting last week with a sympathetic President Bush, aides to the prime minister said.
It is not clear whether the suicide bomber who struck Tuesday night at a pool hall in suburban Tel Aviv, killing 15 Israelis, came from Gaza.
Reserve soldiers were called up last week in preparation for an assault on Gaza. Those orders followed a call-up of more than 20,000 soldiers for the West Bank operation, which caused widespread destruction and civilian suffering in Palestinian cities and came after suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis.
The West Bank offensive "was perceived as a no-choice campaign, and the emergency call-up was perceived as a necessity," commentator Amir Oren wrote in this weekend's Haaretz newspaper. "The Gaza campaign is seen in a completely different light, a campaign of choice."
Although that choice might be forgone for now, no one is ruling it out altogether.
Egypt Welcomes Israeli Decision
The Israeli decision to hold off in Gaza was welcomed in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was meeting with Saudi and Syrian leaders to discuss ways out of the Mideast conflict, news reports from Cairo said.
"It is obvious that there is an Israeli reconsideration to the decision ... to attack Gaza," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said. "We don't say that the danger is over, but we say that there is more realization [of] the gravity of such an adventure."
Today, Sharon faces a crucial meeting of the central committee of his right-wing Likud Party, which is demanding even tougher action against the Palestinians. Committee members are expected to try to push through a binding resolution opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, which would prohibit the prime minister from negotiating one.
Leftist Rally Draws Tens of Thousands
Israeli leftists, meanwhile, staged their biggest rally in almost 20 months of intense Israeli- Palestinian violence. Police estimates put the number of demonstrators at about 50,000. Peace Now, the group that organized the event, said there were more than 100,000.
Gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, named for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated there in 1995, the crowd demanded complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the evacuation of Jewish settlements.
"Leave the territories, for the sake of Israel," banners read. The Israeli left has been all but silenced in recent months by the fighting and the sense shared by many Israelis that the Palestinians cannot be partners for peace. Saturday night's rally represented an attempt at a comeback, with a shift of focus to ending occupation and dismantling settlements.
Yaffa Yarkoni, one of Israel's preeminent singers--who recently got in hot water for sympathizing with reservist soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza--performed at the rally despite a reported death threat.
Yarkoni wept as she left the stage after singing for an end to war. "Is it possible, I hope it will be, that it will happen already. I am tired of these things," she told Israeli radio. "I am tired of these wars. Let [peace] come already."