Threats against Sharon viewed with caution

Israel's far right sees cause for violence over settlements

July 11, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Anyone advocating that Israel give up land, says a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem's Old City, should be "considered condemned to death."

Forcing Jewish settlers to leave their communities, says the chief of staff to a former prime minister, means that the "government would have opted for a violent action, and there will definitely be a violent reaction."

Those are threats that members of Israel's extreme right made against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, remarks that security officials here say could be a prelude to assassination attempts against Sharon or members of his Cabinet.

Officials point to alarming parallels with the vituperative campaign by the extreme right in the months before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was fatally shot in 1995.

As was the case then, extreme-right political figures and radical settlers seem to be advocating, or at least condoning, the use of violence to thwart plans by the government to cede territory to the Palestinians as steps toward a formal peace.

Israeli experts have long debated whether the incitement against Rabin influenced his assassin, Yigal Amir. Former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair concluded that Amir had acted out of a distorted worldview, not "because of a poster here or there."

But the campaign against Rabin was harsh. An ultra-Orthodox journal wrote that "vicious maniacs who run this government take Jews as sheep to slaughter. Rabin is a traitor." At an anti-government rally a few weeks before Rabin's death, protesters carried posters showing Rabin wearing a Nazi uniform."

Sharon, like Rabin, is a former defense minister and former army general whose military exploits extend back to Israel's founding in 1948. Rabin, however, was a member of the center-left Labor Party; Sharon is leader of the rightist Likud party and had joined the demonstrations protesting Rabin's agreements with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Safety concerns

Concerns about Sharon's safety surfaced at the end of last month when Rabbi Avigdor Nevenzahl of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City said that anyone intending to give up Israeli land was din rodef - a person who endangers life and thus can be killed to be stopped.

Nevenzahl used the phrase to describe officials wanting to evacuate Jewish settlements, as Sharon has proposed.

"It should be known," Nevanzahl said on state radio, "that anyone who wants to give away parts of Israeli land is considered condemned to death."

Nevenzahl, reached by telephone, declined to comment on his remarks. But he had tempered them by saying that such a death sentence could not be carried out in the modern world. Still, they garnered headlines and a police investigation.

Then, settler leader Uri Elitzur, who was chief of staff to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now finance minister in Sharon's government, hinted in a television interview that using force to block the evacuation of settlements would be legitimate.

"If this happens, the government would have opted for a violent action, and there will definitely be a violent reaction," he said. "People have the right to defend their homes, and anyone anywhere in the world would do so."

Members of Israel's parliament responded by calling on the attorney general to indict Elitzur for incitement. Elitzur later toned down his remarks, telling Israel Radio, "I think it's forbidden to beat soldiers and it's forbidden to evacuate settlements," he said. "But I think it's much, much, much more forbidden to evacuate settlements than it's forbidden to hit soldiers."

Israeli police say they are also monitoring what appears to be increased activity by the outlawed extreme-right Kach organization.

Last year, members held a festival in memory of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron in 1994. They performed a mock execution of Sharon while shouting, "He will be put to death soon."

Police have questioned several Kach members in recent days, and authorities expelled Kach activist Itamar Ben-Gvir from an event attended by Sharon. He has equated settlement evacuations with kidnapping.

Ben-Gvir told the Jerusalem Post that settlers have held secret meetings throughout the West Bank to discuss how to react to evacuation. "I don't believe we will be the first to open fire, but if the security forces fire on us, then the settlers will fire back," he said.

Demand for proof

Avi Dichter, head of Israel's domestic security service, Shin Bet, sparked an uproar when he said authorities are worried that Sharon might be assassinated. At first, politicians criticized him widely and demanded that he show evidence.

Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi rushed to Dichter's defense, telling a television station that there are people "who have already made the decision to `save the people of Israel' when the time comes. There is not always practical ability to fulfill this wish, but there is no lack of lunatics."

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