Israeli Settlers Told To Resist

Israeli settler leaders on Monday backed a call to resist the planned evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, signaling a shift toward revolt as hopes dwindle for stopping the pullback by political means.

The Yesha Settlers' Council, an umbrella group representing residents of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, refused to condemn a call to disobedience issued by a prominent activist.

Settlement leader Pinchas Wallerstein, a former head of the council, 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:

  • The Israeli parliament on Monday passed the first reading of a government reform bill, clearing the way for the opposition Labor Party to join Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition. The measure, which must still pass three additional readings, would create a second position of vice prime minister, a post which has been demanded by Labor leader Shimon Peres, as a condition for joining the government.
  • On Sunday, Sharon's government approved release of 170 Palestinian prisoners, officially as a gesture to Egypt, but also as encouragement to interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. An Israeli official said Israel will release more prisoners if Abbas takes action against militants.
  • For the first Christmas season in five years, Israel and the Palestinians are cooperating to boost tourism to encourage Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy Land during the holiday.

    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."

    Yesha leaders issued a statement late Monday saying they had decided to adopt Wallerstein's appeal, the first time the organization is formally advocated breaking the law.

    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."

    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.