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Sharon Ready To Lean On Settlers

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued a stern warning Wednesday to Jewish settlers who try to thwart his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, saying the government would use all its might to carry out the pullout.

It was the first time Sharon said he will deal harshly with Israeli settlers who resist the pullout, which is set to begin in July.

In other developments:

  • Gunfire erupted at an Israeli-Gaza checkpoint, leaving an armed Palestinian dead. Also Wednesday, two Palestinian rockets landed in an Israeli army base in southern Israel, wounding 12 soldiers, the army said.
  • Even though Palestinian presidential frontrunner Mahmoud Abbas termed Israel the "Zionist enemy" Tuesday, Sharon's office says the prime minister still plans to meet with Abbas after the Palestinian election. Top issues are likely to be how the Palestinian Authority handles security and institutional reforms.
  • Mustafa Barghouti trails badly in opinion polls, has the backing of no major party and is challenging the Palestinians' most powerful political machine. But he insists he is no long shot in the race to replace Yasser Arafat. "People are fed up with the system, they are fed up with corruption, they are fed up with favoritism," he said, "and people want change." He didn't enter the race until jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, a distant relative, dropped out last month.
  • The small ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party will join Sharon's reshuffled Cabinet, giving the new team a parliamentary majority. Avraham Ravitz, a UTJ representative in parliament, said that 95-year-old party spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv had to struggle with widespread opposition among Orthodox Jews to Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank. "Like every scholar, he took into account a wide variety of issues" in making his decision, Ravits told Israel TV.
  • A previously unknown group calling itself "The Free People of the Galilee" claimed Wednesday that it abducted an Israeli-American woman in 2003 and demanded that Israel release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about her fate. The group said it kidnapped U.S.-born Dana Bennet, who was 18 at the time of her disappearance in the summer of 2003, but there was no proof the group was involved.

    Sharon made his comments in an address to Israeli soldiers, saying he was disturbed by violent scenes this week of Jewish settlers resisting evacuation from a tiny outpost in the West Bank.

    "Those who raise a hand against a soldier or a police officer or a security officer ... we will act against him with all our might," Sharon told the soldiers.

    On Monday, dozens of settlers from the northern West Bank threw rocks and shouted curses at soldiers, and some tried to physically prevent them from knocking down two temporary buildings at the outpost.

    Several settlers and a soldier were hurt in the scuffle, and a soldier fired his rifle in the air, the military said.

    Under Sharon's withdrawal plan, all 8,200 Jewish settlers in Gaza, along with 600 settlers from four West Bank enclaves, are to be uprooted from their homes.

    Jewish settlers have threatened to prevent the pullout, promising mass resistance even if they break the law.

    A small number of settlers and rabbis have urged soldiers to disobey the evacuation orders. Jewish settler leaders warned earlier this week that the army could face mass insubordination during the evacuation.

    Sharon described calls to resist orders a "crime against Israeli society."

    "Those who call for defying orders or for forcibly or violently opposing are subversive, mistaken and endanger our actual existence," he said.

    A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sharon will pursue all legal means to enforce the pullout.

    He said the government would take steps ahead of the withdrawal, including arrests, imprisonment of dissenters and possible confiscation of settlers' weapons, to ensure that force will not be necessary.

    Some members of Sharon's Cabinet have said opponents suspected of using violence should be detained without charge — an emergency measure usually used for suspected Palestinian militants.

    Settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein accused Sharon of launching a smear campaign against the settler movement.

    "The prime minister is a provocateur. He is doing things to make the settlers hated by the nation of Israel," Wallerstein said.

    In new violence, an exchange of fire took place at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza as a group of Palestinians were about to cross through on their way to Mecca for the Islamic hajj pilgrimage. Some 400 pilgrims remained stuck at the checkpoint for several hours before returning home.

    The army said the incident erupted after a Palestinian set off an explosive charge and threw grenades at an Israeli army officer, who shot and killed him. Three Palestinian police officers were wounded.

    Also, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired two rockets into an Israeli army base in southern Israel, wounding 12 soldiers, one seriously, the army said.

    Violence in Gaza has heated up in recent weeks, after a brief lull following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November.

    Abbas hit the campaign trail Wednesday in the West Bank city of Hebron, where several thousand people thronged a hotel to get a glimpse of the candidate.

    Abbas pledged to follow Arafat's path and lead the Palestinians to an independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

    Later, he headed to a nearby refugee camp, promising to lead refugees back to their former properties in what is now Israel.

    The "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants is a deal-breaker for Israel.

    Polls show Abbas with a huge lead over his nearest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, in the election to replace Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. But analysts say Abbas needs about two-thirds of the vote to be able to claim even part of Arafat's emotional and political following.

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