NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered yesterday in the Gaza Strip's largest settlement bloc to rally against the government's plan to withdraw from the area, trying to maintain a carnival-like atmosphere of defiance despite a Palestinian rocket attack.
Though the crowd filled the central lawn at Neve Dekalim, the largest Gush Katif settlement, the turnout of about 40,000 was less than half the number the settlers expected, and some residents dismissed the prediction that thousands of the visitors would stay to join resistance to the pullout, set for July or August.
As the rally was in progress, a homemade Qassam rocket and two mortar shells fired from a nearby Palestinian area exploded nearby, slightly wounding a soldier. Though such attacks had diminished since a Feb. 8 cease-fire and deployment of police by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, barrages have picked up in recent days.
Demonstrators at the Gaza settlement said the rocket attack showed the pullout would only encourage more violence. Sharon ''is retreating under fire and with his tail between his legs," said Benni Elon, a member of parliament from a prosettler party.
Despite Abbas's efforts to rein them in, the militants are likely to step up attacks as the summer pullout approaches, trying to show that they are forcing the Israelis to leave.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank has the support of about two-thirds of his people, according to polls.