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Israeli Soldiers May Refuse Orders

Jewish settler leaders warned Monday that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of soldiers could refuse to carry out orders to evict Gaza Strip settlers, a sign of the difficulties the army could face in carrying out the withdrawal.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements has drawn stiff opposition from hard-liners in his own government and Jewish settlers.

At a meeting late Sunday, settler leaders told the army's top brass to prepare for the possibility of mass insubordination during the evacuation, adding that they were powerless to stop it.

"We explained to [Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe] Ya'alon that the lawlessness will continue and soldiers will refuse orders en masse unless Sharon changes the way he is doing things," said Zviki Bar-Hai, a senior member of the Yesha (Gaza Strip) Council.

Responding, Sharon said soldiers who refuse to carry out orders will be harshly punished. "The law will be upheld," he said.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas — the front-runner in the Jan. 9 presidential election — campaigned in Gaza for a third day, telling supporters that thousands of refugees displaced after Israel's establishment should be allowed to return to their former homes.

"We will never forget the rights of the refugees, and we will never forget their suffering. They will eventually gain their rights, and the day will come when the refugees return home," said Abbas, himself a refugee from Safed, now an Israeli city.

Opinion polls show most Israelis support the plan to evacuate 8,200 Gaza Strip and 600 West Bank settlers. But many of the 230,000 Jewish settlers, led by religious ideologues who believe the West Bank and Gaza are the biblical birthright of the Jewish people, are strongly opposed.

With political efforts to sink the withdrawal foundering, opponents have turned to other means to scuttle the plan.

Last week, government officials overseeing the pullout were prevented from entering four West Bank settlements slated for evacuation when settlers blocked their bus by lying on the road holding infants to their chests.

On Monday, hundreds of Jewish settlers danced, sang and studied in the rain outside Israel's parliament in a sit-in protest against the withdrawal.

The demonstrators set up a tent, where they said they would eat, sleep and study until Sharon agrees to hold a national referendum on the evacuations. Some used protest signs to shelter themselves from pouring rain, while others passed out bumper stickers with protest slogans.

"If Sharon gives in I will be able to go home and won't have to spend the cold nights outside," settlers leader Pinchas Wallerstein added. "Sharon, however, will most probably not do that because his model these days is Stalin."

Many of the protesters were schoolchildren.

The Palestinians "want to get rid of Israel and this is the first step for them," said Amy Rosenbluh, 53, a Jewish settler who immigrated from Cambridge, Mass.

In the West Bank, West Bank settlers clashed with soldiers who came to tear down two structures at an unauthorized outpost. One soldier was wounded and several settlers were arrested.

The Settlers' Council has deemed it acceptable to break the law when opposing the evacuation plan, but has said it does not support insubordination.

Some settler rabbis — who have great influence among religious settlers- have called on their followers who serve in the army to refuse to carry out any evacuation orders.

Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim called on settler leaders to act responsibly and warn their followers of the dangers of insubordination in a democratic society.

"If this is the picture, then it will be a very difficult scene, so difficult it is possible we won't be able to implement this (the pullout)," Boim told Israel Radio.

The pullout plan cost Sharon his parliamentary majority last summer. Last week, Sharon's Likud Party reached a deal to bring the Labor Party into the government.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party was expected to decide Monday whether to join the government as well, the final step in giving Sharon the majority he needs to move forward with the pullout.

Israeli media reported that Sharon would call early elections if the coalition falls through, delaying — and possibly derailing — the withdrawal plan.

On Sunday, the army ended a short operation in northern Gaza aimed at ending persistent Palestinian rocket and mortar fire on towns in Israeli towns and villages. An armed Palestinian wounded in Sunday's operation died Monday, Palestinian hospital officials said.

In fresh violence Monday, Palestinians said soldiers shot and critically wounded a 17-year-old girl while she was walking along the flashpoint Gaza-Egypt border. The army did not immediately comment.

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