Crowds on Saturday packed Tel Aviv's main square for what leftist organisers said was shaping up as one of the biggest demonstrations in years by Israel's "peace camp", largely dormant since the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising in 2000.
The killing of 13 occupation soldiers by Palestinian resistance fighters in the Gaza Strip this week has deepened already strong public support in Israel for a unilateral Gaza withdrawal rejected by Sharon's right-wing Likud party, opinion polls show.
The rally was intended to evoke memories of the public clamour that led to Israel's 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon after a 22-year occupation that cost the lives of hundreds of troops in fighting against Hizb Allah fighters.
Israel's top brass are concerned that Palestinian fighters may have adopted Hizb Allah tactics in their latest ambushes in Gaza, where 7500 Jews live in hard-to-defend settlements amid 1.3 million mostly impoverished Palestinians.
The demonstration, mounted by the opposition Labour party and a coalition of peace groups, began just hours after Israeli
helicopters hit Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip in
apparent retaliation for the soldiers' deaths.
The resistance group said missiles destroyed its leader Muhammad al-Hindi's office in Gaza City but that he was safely in hiding.
'Can't take it any more'
In central Tel Aviv, demonstrators observed a moment of silence for the fallen troops. Israeli forces killed 29 Palestinians, including resistance fighters and bystanders, in Gaza raids.
"I'm here because we can't take it any more," said Tali Rosen, 34. "What got me out of the house was the deaths of the soldiers."
Up to 150,000 Israelis took part
in the rally
Peace songs played as the rally began under the slogan, "The majority rules, leave Gaza, start talking" in Rabin Square, where then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down in 1995 by an ultra-nationalist Jew enraged by his peacemaking moves.
Sharon has promised to press ahead with his US-endorsed "disengagement" plan despite losing a 2 May Likud referendum.
Aides say he may try to overcome opposition from hardliners
by modifying his original blueprint for removal of all Jewish
settlements in Gaza Strip and four of 120 in the West Bank.