Israelis, Palestinians Warned of Tactics
By MARK LAVIE, Associated Press Writer
JERUSALEM - Israeli and Palestinian leaders warned Tuesday against a violent response to Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip later this summer, reflecting concern that extremists on both sides could trigger confrontations.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said if Israeli opponents employ violent tactics in resisting security forces dismantling the settlements, it could endanger Israel's existence. Two days earlier, settlers in Gaza clashed with soldiers trying to tear down empty buildings, providing a taste of what could lie ahead when actual settlements are to be emptied.
In a signal the military will not be lenient with soldiers who disobey orders, a commander passed a harsh sentence against an American-born Israeli who became the first soldier to actively disobey an order linked to the pullout when he refused to take part in the demolition.
On the Palestinian side, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia warned militant groups against carrying out attacks during the withdrawal.
"We do not want to allow even a single excuse for anyone to blame us for sabotaging the disengagement," Qureia said after a Cabinet meeting in Gaza City. "We will hold any party totally responsible if they attempt to gamble with our future."
After first presenting the pullout as a unilateral step, Israel has been moving to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority to ensure an orderly handover and to sideline the violent Islamic Hamas, which has considerable strength in Gaza.
Sharon has said a smooth withdrawal could lead to the resumption of peace talks. The Palestinians also want to avoid looting or chaos in areas placed under their control.
Sharon said settlers who favor violence are a minority among the 9,000 Israelis slated for evacuation from their homes in the 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four small ones in the West Bank.
"I especially warn against attempts by a small, lawless minority ... using violence against the army and other security forces," Sharon said at an annual conference of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency. Security officials have warned that extremists might open fire on soldiers.
Sharon also condemned calls for soldiers to disobey orders to carry out the evacuations. "We all have to remember that the calls to disobedience and to disrupt life in Israel endanger the existence of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state," he said.
Defying Sharon's sharp words, a group of settler rabbis repeated their call for soldiers to disobey such orders, issuing a statement calling the Gaza withdrawal "immoral." Many Orthodox Jews oppose the pullout on grounds that Israel must not give up parts of the biblical Holy Land.
On Sunday, Cpl. Avi Bieber refused to take part in demolition of empty buildings next to the Jewish settlement of Shirat Hayam, shouting slogans against the operation as young settlers climbed on bulldozers and scuffled with other soldiers.
On Tuesday, Bieber was sent to prison for 56 days, a harsh sentence from a disciplinary hearing. "This is a first sign of what will be done in the future," said Channel 2 TV's military analyst, Ronnie Daniel.
Bieber, 19, who moved to Israel from New Jersey in 1996, lives with his family in a West Bank settlement. The military turned down his request for a full court-martial.
Settlers gathered outside military headquarters in Gaza to protest Bieber's arrest. At the demonstration, well-known extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir was detained for questioning, Israeli police said.
Ben-Gvir and dozens of other hard-liners recently took over an empty seaside hotel next to the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim, where they vow to resist the evacuation to the end. They have stockpiled food and water and surrounded the hotel with barbed wire to keep out security forces.
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