The sight this week of right-wing Jewish extremists taunting, stoning and beating Gaza Palestinians, while threatening to "set the country on fire" if the security services tried to stop them, made the Prime Minister act.
On Wednesday, he ordered soldiers to drag the last 35 squatters out of a house they had commandeered in Muwassi, an Arab village adjacent to the main Gush Katif settlement block. And yesterday Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, ordered the army to bring to justice those responsible for what Israeli reporters described as an attempted lynching of an 18-year-old Palestinian.
"They wanted only one thing: to kill," Itzik Saban wrote in a account in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot. "The bruised Palestinian began to lose consciousness. About five insane Jews launched a mad rush at him. From a metre away, they threw stones, rocks, blocks at him."
Yesterday morning, after weeks of waiting for the politicians to give the word, Major-General Dan Harel, the regional commander, sealed off Gush Katif and sent troops to haul the fanatics out of the Palm Beach hotel.
Thousands of police are now being deployed to thwart orange-shirted settlers from paralysing traffic on roads inside Israel.
Mr Sharon denounced the lynch mob as barbarians. "This is an act of savagery, vulgarity and irresponsibility," the Prime Minister fumed. "Such things must be stopped. We cannot let a small group of law breakers impose a reign of terror." The battle, he insisted, was no longer over the disengagement plan, but over the future of Israel. "Under no circumstances can we allow a lawless gang to try to take control of life in Israel. Every measure must be taken to end this rampaging."
Mainstream settler leaders are worried that the surge of mayhem, in Gaza and Israel, will undermine the claim to legitimacy of the anti-disengagement campaign. It is alienating some who empathised with families being evicted from their homes. When protesters tried to block the Tel Aviv freeway, a driver kicked a child who was lying under the wheels of his truck. A motorcyclist beat teenagers with a chain. Another threatened them with a hammer.
Laurence Eziz, a Gush Katif spokeswoman, rejoiced that the army had expelled the radicals from their hotel fortress. "They don't add anything to the pride of Gush Katif," she told The Independent. "This is not the way we want to behave." She hoped yesterday's closure would prove a temporary irritant. Military sources indicated that it would soon be lifted until nearer the disengagement day in mid-August. "If not," Ms Eziz warned, "we'll fight this decision also." She quickly added that they would fight it democratically. "We never take the law into our own hands and we never did anything against the soldiers."
For months, settlers' leaders have talked about the possibility of "civil war" if the planned disengagement of Israel from 21 Gaza settlements goes ahead. Ms Eziz said: "I don't know if it will be civil war, but there is a possibility of having very strong battles, a very strong protest against the soldiers and against the civilian population."
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