Settler leader 'prepared to die'

Leading Jewish settlers were meeting on Monday to decide whether to call for civil disobedience in protest at Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and isolated settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has all but signed a coalition deal that will enable him to evacuate 8 000 settlers from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four isolated enclaves in the northern West Bank by the end of 2005.

In a sign of fierce opposition to the pull-out plan, prominent settler Pinhas Wallerstein called on Sunday for those affected to break through army roadblocks and barricade themselves in their homes, even if it means going to jail.

Wallerstein is chairperson of the influential Yesha settlers’ council, which was to meet later on Monday and could give its formal backing for the first time to a campaign of civil disobedience.

“I want a large part of the public that I believe are willing to go to prison to say so, so the decision-makers will understand where we are going,” Wallerstein told Israel’s Army Radio.

“I believe that what I represent is the central line in the Yesha council,” he added.

The meeting was due as Sharon’s right-wing Likud party tried to wrap up a deal with the main opposition Labour to form a national unity government, which will give him the political backing to see through the Gaza withdrawal.

“The statements made by Pinhas Wallerstein calling to oppose disengagement, even at the price of going to prison, are severe,” Sharon told Israeli radio.

While he “understood the difficulties faced by the settlers ... the law must be respected”, Sharon added.

Final snag in talks

The controversial Gaza plan has been fiercely opposed by many of Sharon’s traditional supporters, leading to the crumbling of his coalition.

The prime minister has been without a parliamentary majority for more than six months, but after months of wrangling is on the verge of stitching together a new government, including eight Labour ministers.

Talks have hitched on a final snag involving Labour leader Shimon Peres, slated to become a second deputy prime minister.

Labour wants Peres to be authorised to function as acting premier when Sharon is away or incapacitated, but Israeli law only allows for one such post, currently held by Likud’s Ehud Olmert.

A deal is expected to be signed as soon as legal changes are made or an alternative solution is found.

Wallerstein’s appeal to settlers came in the form of a letter sent round the settlements calling for active opposition to the withdrawal process.

“The public should violate the transfer law en masse and be ready to pay the price of mass imprisonment,” the letter said.

He was referring to a Bill that has passed its first reading in the Israeli Parliament and aims to regulate the evacuation of the settlements.

It establishes compensation sums for settlers and punishments—hefty fines or imprisonment—that the Israeli government will be able to mete out to those failing to obey the law.

“I call on you to break this immoral law that tramples human rights. I am not afraid of going to prison and I hope that, like me, others will understand that this is the price that it is our duty to pay,” Wallerstein’s letter said.

“I call for breaking through the army’s roadblocks, for violating closed military zone orders and for barricading oneself in houses if need be.

“I understand that people who act in the spirit of this letter will pay a heavy price, but I, personally, am prepared to be killed to prevent the evacuation,” the letter added.

The appeal met with angry reactions from Peace Now, the Israeli settlement watchdog, which called on Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to open a criminal investigation against Wallerstein.—Sapa-AFP

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