JERUSALEM – Rabbis representing Jewish settlers accused Israel's internal security chief Monday of "incitement" after he warned that opponents of the planned dismantling of settlements are growing increasingly militant.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen who took cover in a building. Palestinian officials said a fugitive from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group with ties to the ruling Fatah movement, was killed.
In the northern Gaza Strip, Israeli attack helicopters targeted Palestinian metal workshops with missiles, slightly wounding six people. Israel has frequently targeted such workshops in nearly four years of fighting, saying they are used for making rockets that militants fire on Israeli border towns.
On Sunday, the head of Israel's Shin Bet (search) security service, Avi Dichter, warned of growing militancy among Jewish extremists, as Israel prepares to evacuate about 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank communities by the end of 2005.
The withdrawal is part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians.
Dichter's comments caused an uproar Monday, dominating Israeli talk shows and news reports. The threat posed by Jewish extremists has been a sensitive issue in Israel since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) was assassinated in 1995 by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians.
The Council of Yesha Rabbis (search), an umbrella group representing rabbis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, complained that Dichter's remarks, in a closed-door Cabinet meeting, amounted to "incitement" and an "instigation to war."
"This is an attempt to slander the rabbis," said Rabbi Yishai Babad, the secretary of the Yesha rabbis' council.
Several settler leaders have said they will resist evacuation. Many are religious Jews who believe the West Bank is theirs by divine promise.
While mainstream settler leaders have pledged to use only peaceful resistance, they have also warned of the possibility that some opponents could turn violent.
"The eviction will be tough," Yitzhak Levy, a politician from the pro-settler National Religious Party (search), told Channel Two TV on Sunday. "I can't promise it won't be violence, even though we are calling for there not to be violence."
With tensions on the rise, Attorney General Meni Mazuz urged rabbis and other public leaders "to exercise extreme caution and restraint in their comments."
Mazuz said he would meet with Dichter and top police and legal officials in the coming days to discuss ways to combat incitement.
Last week, an eminent rabbi in Jerusalem said that anyone who removes Jewish settlements would be subject to the death penalty under biblical Jewish law, although he said the death sentence isn't possible in modern times.
Last month, settler leader Uri Elitzur, who was a top aide of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said violent resistance to settlement evacuations is legitimate.
Speaking Monday on Israel Radio, Elitzur slightly softened his comments, saying violence during settlement evacuations is inevitable, and that harming soldiers was a lesser crime than uprooting settlements.
"I think it's forbidden to beat soldiers and it's forbidden to evacuate settlements," Elitzur said. "But I think it's much, much, much more forbidden to evacuate settlements than it's forbidden to hit soldiers."
Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the Shin Bet has grown concerned about the threat of violence.
They said the main concern is the threat of assassinations. The security officials said they are also preparing for attacks on Arabs and potential violence against security forces.
Militants from the outlawed Kach (search) group have begun offering advice to Jewish settlers on ways to fight Sharon's withdrawal plan, including beating attorneys who offer their services.
Israel's Channel 10 TV on Sunday showed a group of some 20 settlers at a Gaza Strip synagogue, listening to the guidance given by the Kach activists on protesting an evacuation.
"You think you're right, go for it. ... Anything goes," said Itamar Ben-Gvir, a prominent Kach activist.
Kach was founded by Meir Kahane (search), an American-Israeli rabbi who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and was later assassinated by an Arab gunman in New York in 1990. Kach is on the State Department's list of terrorist groups, but it continues to have a small, extremist following.
Kach members, including Ben-Gvir, advised the settlers to hit lawyers and assessors with tomatoes and eggs.
In the southern Gaza Strip, a Palestinian man was shot in the head and killed by Israeli soldiers late Sunday while walking down a main road in the southern town of Rafah, Palestinian security and hospital officials said. The officials said the man had no connection to militant groups.
The Israeli army did not comment on the incident. The army frequently operates in Rafah, located along the Egyptian border, in search of tunnels used by Palestinian weapons smugglers.
Elsewhere, Israeli troops entered the West Bank village of Tel near Nablus early Monday and demolished the house of Taher Ramadan, the army and Palestinians said. Troops killed Ramadan, a militant from the Islamic Jihad (search) group, when he tried to attack a Jewish settlement on Sunday.