Israel settler leaders warn of civil war

By Gavin Rabinowtiz

Published September 10, 2004 11:44AM (EDT)

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Settler leaders accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday of bringing the country to the brink of civil war with his plans to evacuate Jewish settlements.

The warnings are the latest in increasingly hostile rhetoric against Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements in 2005, a move he says will boost Israeli security.

Also Friday, the military sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring Palestinians from entering Israel until the Jewish holiday season ends in October because of fears of Palestinian attacks.

Violence continued in the northern Gaza Strip Friday. Troops entered the area early Thursday in what the military said was an attempt to stop militants firing homemade rockets and mortars at Israeli towns.

One Palestinian was killed and 13 were wounded in clashes when the army hit militant positions with rockets from a helicopter and tank fire in separate incidents, the army and witnesses said. An Israeli soldier was also hurt in the fighting. Hamas identified the dead man as Abdel Aziz Ashkar, 34, a senior militant.

Settler leaders claimed Friday that Sharon does not have a mandate to carry out the withdrawal and said his plan would likely result in a civil war.

"Two things could happen if this program goes ahead without being brought to democratic elections in Israel," Eliezer Hasdai, head of a regional settlement council, told Israel Radio.

"The first is a mass refusal (to evacuate) among soldiers and officers in the army. The other is definitely a type of civil war," he said.

Hasdai and other leaders first issued their warnings earlier this week in a meeting with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

"If any one dares to come and touch my daughter's grave ... whether a soldier or the chief of staff, I will shoot him," the Maariv daily quoted Hasdai as saying.

Asked about the comment Friday, he told Israel Radio: "I gave an example of parents who have lost their children ... and they (soldiers) come to remove their graves. It is enough that one bullet is let loose and this will snowball into a local civil war."

However, Sharon vowed that his plan to withdraw from Gaza, home to 8,000 Jewish settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians, will go ahead despite these threats.

"This plan will go ahead regardless, period," Sharon told the Jerusalem Post in an interview published Friday.

Much of the opposition comes from within Sharon's own Likud Party. On Thursday night, Sharon was jeered off the stage at a meeting of young Likud activists with calls to resign.

Also, a petition published Thursday and signed by 185 prominent hardline Israelis contained some of the harshest language yet against Sharon's plan.

It called the pullout a "crime against humanity" and urged security forces to disobey orders to evacuate settlements.

Dovish lawmakers accused the settlers of pushing the country to the brink of civil war to block the withdrawal.

"The settlers, in their campaign to delegitimize the disengagement, will try to lead to a situation of civil war--and under this threat of civil war prevent any evacuations of settlements," said Avshalom Vilan from the Meretz party.

``They are trying, step-by- step, to drag us into an apocalyptic situation,'' he told the radio.

In the newspaper interview, Sharon also said that Israel can continue building in large West Bank settlement blocs without U.S. opposition if it does so quietly.

While the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan calls for a settlement freeze, Israel believes it has tacit American approval for building within these blocs which it wants to keep in any future peace deal.

U.S. diplomats say publicly that Washington remains committed to the road map. However, an announcement in August that Israel would build 1,000 new homes in settlements near Jerusalem drew just a muted U.S. response.

"Yes, we can continue building in the large blocs," Sharon said when asked whether he had a quiet understanding with the United States on limited settlement construction.

The issue of Jewish settlement construction is a major irritant in the complex relations among Israel, the United States and the Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank and Gaza for their state and demand that all settlements be removed.

The entry ban for Palestinians went into effect at dawn Friday, and was expected to last through several Jewish holidays ending in October.

Gavin Rabinowtiz

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