Israelis Fear Sharon Assassination

Opposition leader Shimon Peres said he is "very fearful" Jewish extremists may try to kill Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), as verbal attacks become more vociferous over a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year.

Senior army officials, meanwhile, said Tuesday they are concerned a significant number of soldiers will refuse to dismantle Jewish settlements during the withdrawal; several influential rabbis called on troops to disobey such orders.

The military will build a mock settlement to teach soldiers how to confront armed settlers, some of whom could be violent, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported.

In the northern West Bank, an Israeli was killed Tuesday evening in a drive-by shooting at an isolated settlement between the Palestinian towns of Tulkarem (search) and Jenin (search), Israeli security officials said. Israelis in the West Bank are frequent targets of Palestinian militant attacks.

The settlement is located near four Israeli settlements slated for evacuation under Sharon's disengagement plan.

Sharon is facing intense opposition to his "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, which would remove thousands of settlers from their homes — 8,200 in Gaza and 600 in four small communities in the northern West Bank.

Withdrawal opponents are pushing for a national referendum, but Sharon has dismissed the idea as a stalling tactic.

Next week, parliament is to vote on the disengagement plan. Sharon lost his parliamentary majority several months ago over the withdrawal, but was expected to win the vote with the help of the moderate Labor Party, headed by Peres.

Peres said the divisive political climate reminded him of the atmosphere in Israel nearly a decade ago when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) came under relentless attack from hard-liners opposed to his peace deals with the Palestinians.

Rabin was assassinated by an ultranationalist during a 1995 peace rally also attended by Peres.

"I am very fearful of the incitement, from the grave things that are again being heard. I am afraid someone will try to assassinate the prime minister," Peres was quoted as saying in the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

"There is a lot of similarity between the situation then and today," Peres added.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) also drew comparisons.

"We had enough a decade ago," he said, referring to the Rabin assassination. "There is no way we can allow ourselves to experience the same trauma again."

Sharon was among those who harshly criticized Rabin in 1995, and recently apologized for the statements he made then.

In recent days, posters have appeared across the country showing a picture of Sharon, the word "crazy" and three question marks written across his forehead. Posters on some city buses accuse Sharon of "tearing the nation apart."

Several prominent rabbis have issued statements in recent days, urging soldiers to refuse orders to dismantle settlements as part of the disengagement plan.

A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army is "very concerned" about the rabbis' calls. Army chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon was to address the issue in a speech later Tuesday.

Analysts say the military is vulnerable to the rabbis' decrees.

While there are no exact figures on the numbers of religious soldiers serving, they form "a critical mass," military analyst Amos Harel wrote Tuesday in the Haaretz daily.

"If the calls by the rabbis lead to a wave of refusing orders, it could become the greatest internal challenge to the army since the war began," Harel wrote.

Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher said that "if this does not completely paralyze the army, it could make it very difficult for them to carry out the actual evacuation."

Jewish settlers say they feel betrayed by Sharon, who for decades was the main force behind settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon's aides say he hasn't changed his views on settlements, and is simply trying to get the best possible deal for settlers. Sharon's top political adviser, Dov Weisglass, said in a recent newspaper interview that the disengagement plan will allow 190,000 of 240,000 settlers to remain in their homes.

However, the argument has not persuaded settler leaders, who after a meeting with Sharon earlier this week described him as stubborn and unresponsive. Gaza settlers said talking to Sharon is pointless and canceled a meeting set for Tuesday.

At a meeting of legislators from Sharon's Likud Party on Monday, tension spilled into the hallways. Opponents and supporters of the withdrawal plan shouted and traded barbs in front of TV cameras.

Sharon has already lost two votes, both within the Likud, on his disengagement plan.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, troops killed two Palestinian militants east of the town of Beit Hanoun who were spotted crawling toward the border fence with Israel, the army said. The militants were trying to plant a bomb.

In a separate incident, soldiers shot and critically wounded a Palestinian woman as she was driving in a taxi near a checkpoint not far from the Gush Katif settlement bloc, Palestinian security sources and hospital officials said. The army was checking the report.