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Israel warns of civil war { October 21 2004 }

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Israel warns of civil war risk
Thu 21 October, 2004 11:55

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's justice minister has warned that far-right rabbis who urge soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate Jewish settlements in Gaza were flirting with civil war and could face prosecution.

Tensions over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan have peaked ahead of a parliamentary vote next week that could make or break his government and show whether Israel is ready to cede occupied land for the first time in more than two decades.

Joining an outcry against ultra-nationalist rabbis fiercely opposed to the plan, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Reuters on Thursday: "We have reached the outer limits of our patience with statements that could pose a danger to public security."

Sharon has vowed to remove all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 enclaves in the West Bank by the end of 2005 under a strategy to "disengage" from four years of conflict with Palestinians.

His plan has splintered his coalition and polarised public opinion. Several prominent far-right rabbis have said religious soldiers should refuse orders to remove settlers from occupied land that they see as Israel's by biblical birthright.

"I fear there is a risk of bloodshed. I hope it does not spill over into civil war," said Lapid, who heads the stridently secular Shinui party, dedicated to weakening the power of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israeli politics and society.

"History has seen more crimes committed in the name of sanctity than in the name of sin," he added.

Polls suggest most Israelis favour giving up the Gaza settlements as too costly in lives and money. Agitation by ultra-nationalists has prompted moderate rabbis to issue their own calls for soldiers to obey evacuation orders.

But Sharon's far-right opponents say a withdrawal would be a "reward for Palestinian terrorism".

Meanwhile most Palestinians regard "disengagement" as a ruse to keep most of the West Bank in Israeli hands and deny them a viable state.


For many Israelis, the restive national mood recalls the climate that preceded the assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an ultra-nationalist Jew opposed to his peace deals with the Palestinians. Sharon has also received death threats, and increased his security.

Addressing Israel's lawyers' association on Wednesday night, Lapid issued a warning to "those who spread sedition among the religiously observant and risk bringing about civil war".

Asked if there were grounds for prosecuting religious leaders, he told Reuters: "Some would say we have been too circumspect. After the Rabin murder, we must observe the boundary between acceptable and criminal statements."

Though lobbying remains intense, Sharon is widely expected to win the parliamentary vote, scheduled for Tuesday. The dovish opposition Labour party looks likely to offset a rebellion by a group of deputies in his own rightist Likud party.

But Sharon's efforts to muster a wider majority hit a snag when Shas, the biggest religious party, said it would not support the Gaza plan. Many ultra-Orthodox Israelis believe God granted the Jewish people dominion over what is now the West Bank and Gaza.

A decision was still pending on whether Shas deputies would vote 'no' or abstain. Even without Shas's support, Sharon is expected to get 64 to 70 votes in the 120-member parliament.

If the Gaza plan is approved, it will pave the way for cabinet votes to implement Israel's first removal of settlements on occupied land since it returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982.

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