Soldier asks troops to disobey West Bank orders

An off-duty soldier has called on fellow troops to disobey orders to tear down structures during a violent confrontation at an unauthorised West Bank settlement—a sign of trouble ahead when Israel’s government orders evacuation of entire settlements in the summer.

The incident on Monday was the first of its kind, according to the military. It followed warnings by settler leaders that hundreds or perhaps thousands of soldiers might refuse to take part in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank this summer.

Sharon reacted sternly, saying soldiers who refuse to carry out orders will be harshly punished.

“The law will be upheld,” he said.

Under the stalled United States-backed “road map” peace plan, Israel pledged to take down more than 100 unauthorised outposts in the West Bank, but most attempts by the army to remove the outposts—most of them made up of a few trailers or packing containers on hilltops—have triggered violent confrontations with settlers.

On Monday, dozens of settlers from the northern West Bank threw rocks and shouted curses at soldiers, and some tried physically to prevent them from knocking down two temporary buildings at an outpost next to the settlement of Yitzhar, a stronghold of extremists.

In the scuffle, several settlers and a soldier were hurt, and a soldier fired his rifle in the air, the military said.

During the confrontation, the off-duty soldier refused to leave one of the structures and called on soldiers from in his unit to disobey the orders.
He was arrested. The military said it was the first such case of refusal to carry out an order to evacuate a settlement.

Only 8 800 settlers are to be removed under Sharon’s plan, a small fraction of the 244 000 settlers in the Palestinian areas.

The government expects most to agree to compensation and leave before the deadline, but there are concerns that extremists might take their places in the targeted settlements and fight the military.

Palestinian refugees

Meanwhile, with January 9 Palestinian elections less than a week away, leading candidate Mahmoud Abbas took an uncompromising stance on a touchy issue—Palestinian refugees.

Abbas was campaigning on Monday for a third straight day in Gaza, trying to counter his image as a grey bureaucrat who might not stand up to Israel by appealing to younger, more militant Palestinians with hard-line pronouncements.

Addressing a rally in Gaza City, Abbas endorsed the claim that Palestinian refugees and their descendants from the two-year war that followed Israel’s creation in 1948 have the right to return to their original homes.

“We will never forget the rights of the refugees, and we will never forget their suffering. They will eventually gain their rights, and the day will come when the refugees return home,” Abbas told the cheering crowd.

Abbas himself is a refugee from Safed, an ancient city in northern Israel.

All together, the refugees and their descendants total about four million people. Almost unanimously, Israeli Jews reject the claim, warning that resettling so many Arabs would undermine the Jewish quality of their state, where about five million Jews and one million Arabs now live. Some say it is a dark plot to destroy the Jewish state.

Israel’s government believes Palestinian refugees should be resettled in the Palestinian state that would be created through peace talks or in the places where they have lived for the past six decades.

The deep dispute has torpedoed peace efforts, most recently in July 2000, when then-US president Bill Clinton called a peace summit but was unable to broker a deal.

Israeli officials believe Abbas is a moderate who has publicly opposed Palestinian violence and might be more flexible than Arafat, and they are prepared to wait and see what happens after the January 9 election for president, which Abbas is almost certain to win.

“The future Palestinian leaders will be judged according to their deeds and actions, not according to words said during an election campaign,” said a senior official on condition of anonymity.

In an Associated Press interview last August, Abbas indicated flexibility. He said Palestinians might settle for a statement of responsibility from Israel for the refugee problem, followed by the return of a limited number of refugees.

He said the numbers could be worked out in negotiations, a stand close to that of Israeli peace activists.—Sapa-AP

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