JERUSALEM (AP) – Israelis joined hands Sunday, forming a miles long human chain that stretched from Gaza to Jerusalem in protest of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to dismantle Jewish settlements and withdraw the army from the Gaza Strip.

As the demonstration was ending, Palestinians fired mortars at the largest Gaza settlement, Neve Dekalim, wounding five Israeli children, one seriously, according to rescue services and the military. The settlement is a frequent target of Palestinian rifle and mortar fire.

Media reports said a mortar shell hit a community center, wounding a group of 10-year-olds.

Organizers expected up to 150,000 Israelis to form the chain, about the same number as participated in a pro-withdrawal demonstration in Tel Aviv two months ago.

The mass turnout on both sides illustrated the deep division among Israelis over settlements in the Palestinian territories.

The chain began at Nissanit, a settlement in northern Gaza, and stretched 55 miles along roads and highways to Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Hundreds of rented buses carried people to various points along the route, and bullhorns signaled demonstrators to join hands. There were few gaps, and turnout appeared to be high.

“We came here to protest the program of expelling Jews from their land,” said Avraham Yitzhaki, 54, from the Gaza settlement of Ganei Tal.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, religious Jews prayed at Judaism’s holiest shrine, then danced, clapped and sang patriotic songs before clasping hands.

Thousands of police officers patrolled the route, directed snarled traffic and tried to prevent any disturbances. No major problems were reported.

Sharon announced in December that he planned to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by the end of September 2005. The plan drew such fierce opposition from hard-liners that he fired two critics in his own Cabinet, forcing him to search for a new governing coalition.

The decision also infuriated Jewish settlers who saw Sharon as their champion through decades of political fighting over building and expanding settlements in territories seized from Jordan, Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.

“The government of Israel should not be displacing its own people,” said Adina Giventer, who came to demonstrate from Haifa in northern Israel.

Many Israelis say the settlements reinforce Israel’s claim to lands that are the birthright of the Jewish people. About 240,000 Jews live among 3.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Other Israelis believe relinquishing the settlements is a precondition for reaching peace with the Palestinians. Polls show a majority in favor of Sharon’s plan to abandon the Gaza Strip, which has less historical significance than the West Bank.

The human chain took months to organize. Volunteers enlisted on a Web site that sliced the route into seven segments. People were told which area they should travel to, based on the location of their home or workplace.

“We have a flood of people asking to take part in the chain. The numbers are much, much more than we expected,” organizer Zevulon Halfon said. “Spreading out this force in such a short time really requires massive control.”

The first person on the chain in Nissanit was Shamir Yitzhak, who was evacuated from the Gaza Strip when Egypt captured the area in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

Six-year-old Yael Better, Yitzhak’s granddaughter, marked the last link of the chain with her hand on the ancient stones of the Western Wall, while more than 2,000 people in the courtyard sang the national anthem.

“I don’t know if it will have any influence. But we at least want to show the government that this can’t be given up easily,” said Mordechai Better, Yael’s father. “It’s not something that can be removed in a minute. There are three generations here.”

In Gaza City on Sunday, Israeli helicopters destroyed a two-story house in a crowded residential district. The army said the building housed a weapons workshop run by the Hamas militant organization.

Palestinian security officials said the house in the Zeitoun neighborhood was empty at the time of the strike. Two people, apparently passers-by, were taken to Gaza hospital with minor injuries, and two others were treated at the scene.

Also, Israeli troops expanded an operation near Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, effectively taking over the entire town in an effort to prevent the firing of rockets on nearby Israeli areas.

Associated Press reporter Peter Enav contributed to this report from southern Israel.

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AP-ES-07-25-04 1305EDT

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