Israeli parliament set for debate on Gaza Strip pullout

Fearing violence, police plan huge security effort

October 25, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel's parliament will begin a marathon debate today on whether to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, a historic proposal that has polarized the nation, thrown politics into a panic and raised fears of civil unrest.

If approved as expected, it would be the first time that lawmakers have voted to uproot Jewish settlers from land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - people once considered pioneers of Zionism who were encouraged and supported by successive governments.

But opponents of the bill - sponsored by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a former army general who championed the settlement cause - vow to impede the vote scheduled for tomorrow night, calling it a surrender under fire to Palestinian militants who have waged a deadly uprising that is now in its fifth year.

Yesterday, Sharon's Cabinet approved a bill to compensate the 8,100 Gaza settlers and a few hundred others who live in four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank up to $400,000 per family. This bill will be presented to parliament Nov. 1.

Fearing violence today and tomorrow, Israeli police said they would set up an unprecedented security cordon around the parliament building in Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of settlers and their supporters are expected to converge in an effort to lay siege to the building and block lawmakers from entering.

Although polls and local news media predict that the withdrawal plan will pass with the support of at least 67 of the 120 lawmakers, the prime minister stands to lose considerable ground within his rightist Likud Party. Newspapers said yesterday that he had the support of only 23 in Likud's 40-member delegation. The debate, scheduled to end at midnight today and resume again tomorrow morning, is a crucial test for a nation that must decide whether it is time to cede land to the Palestinians while peace negotiations are stalled and chances for a resolution appear nonexistent.

Sharon wants to carry out the evacuation next year. It could take up to 12 weeks to complete the removal of settlers from amid 1.3 million Palestinians, and could require the call-up of 100,000 reservists and thousands of police officers.

Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, called tomorrow's vote "a watershed" moment in Israeli politics that represents a drastic reversal in policy.

"There is more than historical justice, in that the person who is very much responsible for the settlement movement is now the one who is going to start dismantling at least some of it," Avineri said in an interview yesterday. "For this country, it certainly is excruciating."

Avineri said the vote could help define Sharon's legacy. "Either he goes down in history as the someone who tried to disengage and failed or the person who carried it out. He really has no escape route."

Opponents are furious at Sharon for pushing ahead with his plan through what they call undemocratic means. Sharon lost a referendum of Likud voters in April only to ignore the nonbinding decision. In June, he fired two Cabinet ministers to ensure a vote in his favor.

The fight Sharon faces within his party runs deep. The head of the Likud faction, responsible for rallying lawmakers around the party cause, is against the withdrawal plan and has refused to lobby on behalf of the prime minister.

Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who will control the parliament debate and enforce rules on speeches and votes, is also against disengagement. He sent a letter last week to the 3,000 Likud Party Central Committee members, saying that Sharon is without "loyalty to the land of Israel."

The disengagement plans also have roused a dangerous wave of dissent within Israel's army, with soldiers and reservists debating whether to follow orders and participate in the evacuation of Gaza.

Last week, 60 rabbis signed a letter urging soldiers to refuse orders to dismantle settlements. Another group of rabbis countered with their own letter, saying soldiers must do what they are told.

The potential rift prompted the army's chief of staff, Lt. General Moshe Yaalon, to warn last week that "insubordination is a danger to Zionism." He added, "We cannot undermine the strength of the Israel Defense Forces."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met last week with the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to try to persuade him to side with Sharon. On Saturday night, Yosef addressed a cheering crowd in a Jerusalem yeshiva and called supporting disengagement a violation of the Torah, "a real danger to the people of Israel" that is a "matter of life and death."

But Sharon made some progress toward his goal with yesterday's Cabinet approval of the compensation bill. It gives Sharon the authority to order an evacuation of the settlements and a date to carry it out.

The bill includes formulas to determine how much each family will receive -$100,000 to $400,000, depending on size, length of stay and the value of their house and property. Those who leave voluntarily could receive bonuses in the form of tax credits or reduced-interest loans, while those evicted by police could be penalized. Those over age 21 will receive grants of $550 for each year they have lived in the settlements.

Sharon, speaking at the start of the Cabinet meeting, said the law would, "as much as possible, ease conditions for the settlers who are to be evacuated, and I am certain that even those who oppose the disengagement plan will not want to make things difficult for the settlers."

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