Sharon warns Gaza settlers not to resist evacuation

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday issued his strongest warning yet that the state would use "all our power" against settlers resisting evacuation from Gaza. Mr Sharon offered maximum political to support to the army and police as they prepare to cope with possible violence and civil disobedience when 21 Gaza settlements are evacuated under the Prime Minister's Knesset-endorsed disengagement plan.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday issued his strongest warning yet that the state would use "all our power" against settlers resisting evacuation from Gaza. Mr Sharon offered maximum political to support to the army and police as they prepare to cope with possible violence and civil disobedience when 21 Gaza settlements are evacuated under the Prime Minister's Knesset-endorsed disengagement plan.

Faced with a relentless campaign of opposition to the plan from settlers' leaders, the Prime Minister told troops and officers at the Israel Defence Forces Central command headquarters: "Whoever raises a hand to a soldier or police officer or security official, whoever organises refusal [by soldiers of their evacuation orders] whoever threatens - we will act against him with all our power."

Mr Sharon was speaking as the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism party agreed to join his new coalition and ensure him a working majority for the plan to evacuate 7,500 Jewish settlers form Gaza and many of the armed forces protecting them.

Although the endorsement of the party's coalition membership from the UTJ's spiritual mentor, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, is conditional, it means that Mr Sharon's coalition, which already includes the former opposition, Labour, can now largely ignore the rebels in his Likud party still seeking to block the disengagement plan. Under the terms of the endorsement, the party will join the coalition for three months. For that period its Knesset members will not fill government posts but they will extend their membership provided Mr Sharon increases funds for the movement's religious and educational institutes.

Mr Sharon's tough new rhetoric was a response to calls for a tough stand from senior Army officers worried that a campaign of resistance could be encouraged by earlier indications at a lower level of government that the disengagement plan might be delayed if settlers's leaders carried out their threat to disrupt the process of the evacuation .

The Prime Minister also offered his personal backing to soldiers who clashed with settlers seeking to evacuate an illegal outpost outside the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar this week. Three settlers and a border policeman were lightly wounded after several settlers threw stones at soldiers and policemen, vandalized military vehicles and called the evacuating forces "Nazis".

Senior Israel Defence Forces officers are demanding the arrest of those people who have organised petitions to be signed by soldiers refusing to obey evacuation orders. A soldier from Yitzhar, who harassed troops who were evacuating two trailers from a nearby illegal outpost, and called on them to refuse orders, was sentenced to 28 days in a military jail yesterday.

Mr Sharon said: "I heard the curses and catcalls and incitement against the IDF, against the Israel police, against the commanders and against the soldiers. "I ask that you don't take it personally; it's not directed against you, it's directed against the government, against the Knesset and against me."

In the remarks broadcast on Army radio, the Prrime Minister said that it was more important to keep the army intact than to preserve the settlements and added: "I want to say to those who incite, to those who curse, to those who insult: Leave the IDF alone. If you want to protest, protest against me; if you want to insult, insult me. But leave the politics in the political arena and leave the IDF and its soldiers out of it."

Meanwhile in continued conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in Gaza, 12 soldiers were injured when a Qassam rocket hit a an army base close on the Israeli side of the border with the Strip.

Dr Mustafa Barghouti, the likely runner-up to Mahmoud Abbas in next Sunday's Palestiniana presidential election, said that his campaign schedule had been disrupted because he had been prevented from leaving Gaza for the West Bank by the closure of the Erez crossing into Israel. The army said that the crossing was closed after a Palestinian militant blew up a wall in the area in the early hours of yesterday between the Palestinian and Israeli side of the crossing and hurled grenades at Israeli soldiers. Three Palestinian security men were wounded in crossfire, the army said.

Meanwhile the Israeli government announced that the jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, who withdrew from the Palestinian presidential election campaign last month, had been taken out of solitary confinement for the first time in his two and half year imprisonment.

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