Sharon cracks down on extremist settlers

The Israeli Prime Minister ordered a crackdown on pro-settler extremists yesterday in response to an attack on a cabinet minister and death threats to other politicians.

The move by Ariel Sharon came as Dalia Rabin, whose father, Yitzhak, was assassinated by a far-right fanatic in 1995, warned: "If we don't do enough now to stop the deterioration, we will again see the terrible spectacle of a prime minister assassinated."

The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper quoted a police source as saying 84 senior officials were under protection because of concern for their lives.

Meir Sheetrit, the Transport Minister, a defiant Likud dove overseeing the financial aspects of the disengagement of settlers from occupied territory, said he had received death threats to himself, his wife and children.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, an Iraqi-born Labour party minister, showed cabinet colleagues a letter reading: "Arab blood is flowing through your veins. You must return to Iraq to defend Saddam Hussein." Mr Ben-Eliezer, a retired brigadier- general, left Iraq in 1950.

Most of the threats appear, however, to be aimed at Mr Sharon. Graffiti threatening him with death and doctored photographs of Mr Sharon dressed in a Stalinist uniform with the words "The Dictator" have become increasingly common, drawing comparisons to the sort of incitement that preceded the Rabin assassination.

On Saturday, police arrested a 17-year-old suspected of involvement in Thursday night's attack on the Finance Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, because of his support for the disengagement plan. A plate was allegedly thrown at the former prime minister. Also last week, the Education Minister Limor Livnat was jostled and heckled at a memorial ceremony.

The tighter security was instituted as Israel approved the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners yesterday, in what Mr Sharon called a goodwill gesture to bolster the new Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and build mutual trust. Officials began compiling a second list of 400 to follow within three months. The prisoner release was in a package of gestures that Mr Sharon said could increase mutual trust between Israel and the Palestinian Authority after last week's ceasefire agreement, which was endorsed on Saturday by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on condition that Israel kept its side of the bargain.

In an attempt to broaden popular support for Mr Abbas, 25 per cent of prisoners in the first batch belong to the radical militias and 75 per cent to his mainstream al-Fatah. Israel waived its earlier insistence that only those who had completed two-thirds of their sentence would be eligible, but it is still refusing to free any who killed Israelis.

This week Israel is expected to begin restoring five West Bank towns to Palestinian security control. The first will be Jericho, which has been relatively quiet during the four and a half years of intifada violence. Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Ramallah and Bethlehem will follow, but Israel is waiting to gauge the effectiveness of Palestinian forces before pulling back from hotspots that include Nablus, Jenin and Hebron.