Sharon warns settlers against incitement

Thousands rally in Israel against Gaza pullout plan

September 13, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lashed out yesterday against what he called growing incitement toward violence by opponents of his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan, while thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters gathered here to protest the proposed pullout.

Sharon's comments, and the demonstration hours later in Jerusalem's Zion Square, came amid escalating passions over the plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank by late next year.

Sharon's critics say he is trying to squelch debate over the evacuation by characterizing dissent as incitement and opponents as extremists.

"It's wrong and it's dangerous," said Josh Hasten, spokesman for the Yesha Council, the main settlers group. He said Sharon's comments appeared timed to undermine the demonstration.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials have expressed alarm over what they view as incendiary rhetoric by opponents of the withdrawal, including toward Israeli soldiers and police who would be responsible for removing settlers from their homes.

Sharon's plan calls for evacuating all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. About 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, and protecting them has been costly for Israel in terms of lives and money.

Israeli leaders have expressed growing worry that calls to resist could trigger civil strife.

Last week, opponents of the pullout published an open letter in several Israeli newspapers calling settlement evacuation a "crime against humanity" and "ethnic cleansing of Jews." The letter called upon soldiers to refuse to take part.

Israeli officials have complained of threats and harassment against soldiers and police who took part in efforts to dismantle small settlement offshoots, known as outposts, in the West Bank.

"We have seen a severe campaign of incitement, with intentional calls for civil war. I see this as very serious. I think that the threats on [soldiers] and security establishment personnel are a very grave phenomenon," Sharon said yesterday, opening the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Sharon said that too few government ministers had spoken out on the matter, and he urged authorities to "take all the necessary steps" to curb language meant to incite.

"This phenomenon must stop," he said. "Of course, it didn't start with settlers. Such voices are - to my regret - also heard from other areas, but it is no less serious."

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday that officials were considering whether they might detain activists from the settler movement under a provision of the law that allows suspects to be held without being charged publicly - a measure usually employed against Palestinian militants.

Members of Sharon's government have suggested that extremists might try to foil the pullout by killing a government official or attacking Muslim worshipers at the mosque complex on the Temple Mount.

At the rally in Jerusalem last night, settlers and their allies decried what they see as a forcible expulsion of Jews from their homes by a prime minister who once was a staunch proponent of settlements. They say the pullout would reward terrorism.

"Sharon is not acting as a democratic person. In every case he says, `I will do what I want,'" said Shoshana Kaplan, a Jerusalem guidance counselor who attended the rally.

Settler leaders say they oppose violent resistance and will advocate only peaceful opposition.

They accuse the prime minister of ignoring the public's will by pushing ahead with his pullout plan despite losing a referendum on the issue among Likud members in May. Sharon later fired two rightist ministers who had opposed the withdrawal to get a Cabinet majority in favor.

Withdrawal opponents are calling for a national referendum, but with passage dependent on a super-majority of perhaps 60 percent. Opinion polls consistently have shown majority support for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Sharon aides have dismissed the idea of a referendum.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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