An 18-day hunger strike has become the center of a snowballing campaign to block any peace agreement that would return the Golan Heights to Syria.
The biblical site where 13 people are fasting is drawing tens of thousands of government opponents, including 500 Israelis who joined the strike for the day on Wednesday.Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin attempted to dampen dissent with-in his own party from supporters of the Golan settlers by threatening to end the peace talks.
Rabin said he was weighing calling a vote of confidence in parliament next week when he makes a policy speech about peace negotiations.
"If we don't have a majority then perhaps I shall announce a cessation of talks with Syria," Rabin told Labor Party parliament members Wednesday, according to a spokesman.
He groused that the growing attention to the issue was premature, since there are still huge negotiating gaps between the two sides, and repeated that any treaty would be taken to a public referendum.
The Golan's future has emerged as the most divisive issue in recent years, and Gamla, overlooking north-ern Israel and the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the first century Jewish revolt against the Romans, is a magnet for those opposing any territorial concessions.
Campaign organizer Avi Kalstein claimed that 250,000 Israelis have trekked to Gamla in the past two weeks. Critics point out that the Golan's beauty draws thousands of visitors annually during this holiday period, and the hunger strike is just one more tourist attraction.
But about 135,000 have signed a petition demanding Israel keep all the Golan, Kalstein said.
"We came to show our solidarity. We are worried that all of the Golan will be returned, and we are worried for our security," said Ehud Gutman, 46, from the northern town of Tiberias.
With an "I'm on a hunger strike" sticker on his shirt, he stood in the tent where the core group has been living on mineral water, chicken broth and potassium supplements since Sept. 10.
"This has a tremendous influence on the decisionmakers, like the prime minister, when they see these masses of people coming here," Kalstein said.
The campaign bolstered five rebels in the governing Labor Party. They said after a meeting Thursday with Rabin that they would go ahead with plans to submit a bill requiring at least 70 legislators in the 120-seat parliament to approve any land-for-peace deal with Syria. Rabin's coalition is not up to a fight in parliament, since it only controls 61 seats, and that includes the rebels.
The debate erupted unexpectedly in early September when Golan settlers, citing government sources, said Israel secretly pledged to return the entire volcanic plateau in three years.
Rabin again denied this Wednesday in the Labor meeting, saying he only offered Syria a slice, to be followed by a three-year testing period. Then a final line of withdrawal would be negotiated. Syria demands a full return.
But the debate focuses simply on supporting or opposing a full withdrawal in exchange for peace. Polls show the nation evenly divided, with security the key hinge.
Those favoring a complete pullout accuse the settlers of grasping at material things such as their homes while ignoring the first real chance for peace with Syria.
"You are . . . blind, deaf and blockheaded. You neither hear nor feel the rare opportunity to reach a settlement and make peace with yesterday's enemies," Avigdor Ben-Gal, a reserve general who played a key role in the Golan in the 1973 Middle East war, wrote in an open letter published Wednesday by the Maariv daily.
The Golan activists shot back that they were sent by a Labor government 27 years ago to settle the land and serve as a buffer against giving it back.