Sharon vows to stop 'wild behaviour' of pullout foes
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Tuesday the "wild behaviour" of ultranationalist Jews bent on scuttling his Gaza pullout plan posed a threat to Israeli democracy and would be stamped out.
He referred to religious rightists who set up a new settler outpost in occupied Gaza after clashing with Israeli troops who were razing empty housing that pullout foes had earmarked for refurbishment as bastions to resist the August withdrawal.
A soldier who refused orders to take part in the demolition work by his unit was sentenced at a disciplinary hearing to 56 days in jail. The case set a precedent for punishment of any soldiers who balk at removing settlers during the pullout.
Most Israelis in polls favour removing all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank under Sharon's plan to "disengage" from conflict with Palestinians. But rightists vow to torpedo it, saying it would "appease Palestinian terrorism".
Sharon, whose move has been seized on by U.S.-led mediators as a springboard to future peacemaking, said in a speech to a Jewish immigration convention that the pullout was the best way to safeguard Israel's future security.
"I am very aware of attempts by a small minority of lawbreakers, as we saw two days ago on the seashore at Gush Katif (settlement in Gaza), who wish to use force against the Israeli army and other security forces," Sharon said.
"This minority does not represent the (wider) collective of settlers. We must all remember that the call to disobedience and attempts to disrupt lives of Israelis endangers the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic nation," he said.
"We must all, regardless of creed, oppose this. And I believe that the legal authorities will take all the necessary measures to stop this wild behaviour," said Sharon to applause.
THREATS TO SHARON, ARMY CHIEF
Anti-pullout activists, some of them settlers, have been escalating a protest campaign that has polarised Israelis and led to death threats by ultra-rightists against Sharon.
Israeli security sources said on Tuesday security had been beefed up around the home of army chief Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz after he received a letter saying, "If your family is important to you, don't follow in Sharon's footsteps."
Sharon urged ultra-Orthodox rabbis in a meeting later to impress on their faithful the need to respect government decisions even if they personally opposed the pullout.
"You must make your voices heard even if it isn't easy for you, because we are in a dangerous situation, as we saw today with (Halutz). We have a small group of extremists trying to impose their will on an entire people," he told the rabbis.
In Gaza, Israeli security officers fired into the air to disperse Palestinian stone-throwers who clashed with settlers who took over an abandoned cottage by a Palestinian neighbourhood near the Gush Katif settlement bloc, Israeli security sources said.
Three settlers were lightly hurt by rocks. Police said settlers had also thrown stones during some of the protests.
The withdrawal outlook has also been clouded by increasing violations to a four-month-old Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie urged militant factions on Tuesday to exercise restraint. "We tell all parties (including) Israel ... that we are in need of calm to ensure an orderly and peaceful pullout," he told reporters in Gaza.
Sharon has said he will not remove settlers "under fire".
He told the Jewish Agency convention that the Zionist goal of a secure Jewish homeland hinged not just on immigration but establishing realistic borders for a Jewish majority.
"It is obvious we do not have the ability to assure a Jewish majority in every area," he said, alluding to Gaza and parts of the West Bank, territories that Israel captured along with Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.
"What we do have is the ability to realise an important part of the dream." He said that meant Israel would hold on to "the most important areas to ensure our existence", including much larger West Bank settlement blocs and East Jerusalem.
Palestinians welcome the prospect of gaining Gaza, a small coastal strip, but say Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank will dim peace prospects by denying them a viable state.
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