Israeli settlement leader Pinchas Wallerstein has infuriated the government, by urging settlers to resist the evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza by breaking the law, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. Officials fear that mass civil disobedience by the settlers could lead to chaos.
In other developments:
For months, settler leaders had been confident they could stop the Gaza plan with political lobbying and that they could bring down Sharon's government, if necessary. Last summer, the settlers' political patrons had quit the coalition, weakening Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Settlers also enjoyed strong support among many legislators in Sharon's Likud Party.
However, Sharon outmaneuvered his opponents, including those in Likud.
The call to disobedience issued by Wallerstein, a former leader of the Yesha Settlers' Council, who sent letters around the West Bank, said settlers should resist evacuation even if it means going to prison.
The withdrawal plan is accompanied by special legislation that says anyone physically resisting the dismantling of settlements faces up to three years in prison. The bill requires two more votes before becoming law.
The Yesha Council was to meet later Monday to decide whether to adopt Wallerstein's appeal, which would mark the first time the organization is formally advocating breaking the law.
"I want a large part of the public that I believe are willing to go to prison to say so today so the decision-makers will understand where we are going," Wallerstein told Israel's Army Radio. "I believe that what I represent is the central line in the Yesha Council."
Sharon, a former settler patron, said Wallerstein's statement was "harsh." Sharon said he understood the pain of the settlers but that they must not break the law.
Wallerstein said he did not support using force against soldiers involved in the evacuation. Calling the withdrawal plan an "immoral crime," Wallerstein said: "If someone who opposes this law has to go to prison, I am ready to go to prison."
Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, secretary of the Yesha Council, said the group has not yet decided whether to support Wallerstein's position. "There is certainly a significant escalation here both in the expression and the direction and therefore we have to consider ... our position opposite these unusual statements," Mor-Yosef said.
But Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of the dovish Peace Now group, said Wallerstein's statements violate the law, and called on the attorney general to open an investigation.
"The settler leaders were and remain a group of bullies that don't respect the law," Oppenheimer told Army Radio. "Sitting quietly will allow the anarchy to continue and will encourage revolt."
Attorney General Meni Mazuz said Wallerstein's comments would be investigated by his office to see if he broke the law.
"I hope that Pinchas Wallerstein will realize how serious the things are when said by an elected official and I hope that the Yesha Council will show responsibility and distance itself from these statements," Mazuz told reporters. Wallerstein is the head of the West Bank Binyamin Regional Council.
Twenty-five settlements — 21 in Gaza and four in the West Bank — are to be dismantled between July and September.
The decision on the prisoners followed Egypt's Dec. 5 release of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab who served eight years in prison on an espionage charge, in exchange for six Egyptians suspected of planning attacks on Israeli soldiers.
Sharon called the decision a "goodwill gesture" and spoke of "deep friendship" for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Palestinians say the release of 170 prisoners is not enough. They want all 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israelis jails to be freed.
Israeli spokesman Dore Gold said more prisoners will be released if the Palestinian Authority cracks down on militant groups and fights terrorism.
"We have to have a situation in which the Palestinians take security control," Gold said.
However, Israel insists that prisoners who have killed Israelis — "Jewish blood on their hands" — will not go free.
Israel holds an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, many accused of security-related crimes. Officials said the prisoners to be freed next week were not actively involved in attacks on Israelis. The Israeli daily Haaretz said 120 of the prisoners are members of Abbas' Fatah Party. The others were jailed on minor offenses.
Bethlehem's landmark hotel, the Paradise, has reopened for business this Christmas, for the first time since the Palestinian uprising erupted four years ago. The building symbolizes the good and bad times, reports Berger: It once represented Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, but during the conflict, it became an Israeli base where troops battled Palestinian gunmen. But the security situation has improved and the hotel has been renovated. And there's plenty of room this year at the inn.