JERUSALEM – Responding to death threats against government ministers, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) ordered law enforcement agencies Sunday to crack down on Jewish extremists opposed to the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Cabinet ministers said the charged climate is reminiscent of the period before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) who was in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. One minister warned Sharon himself could become a target. Extremists have put up posters across the country that say Rabin and the prime minister's deceased wife, Lily, are "waiting for Sharon."
Despite the concerns, Sharon's Cabinet approved a list of 500 Palestinian prisoners to be released in coming days, and several hundred Palestinian workers were permitted to return to jobs in Israel in line with agreements reached at a Mideast summit last week.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), meanwhile, was to present a new Cabinet to his Fatah movement for approval Tuesday. Abbas was expected to appoint new interior, foreign and information ministers but keep on many current government members, officials said.
Israeli officials have voiced concerns about extremist opposition to the pullout plan for months. But with this summer's planned withdrawal quickly approaching and a recent warming of ties with the Palestinians, the level of alarm has been raised.
Sharon instructed law enforcement agencies to report back to the Cabinet as soon as possible with steps that can be taken to "rein in the violent rampage" of extremists opposing his plan, a statement said.
Several Cabinet ministers said they have received threatening letters in recent days, and last week Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his tires slashed and slurs shouted at him while attending a wedding.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister, was targeted just days after Education Minister Limor Livnat was whisked away from an event where she was screamed at by hard-line Jews.
Meir Sheetrit, one of the ministers who received a threatening letter, said every step should be taken to punish those behind the threats.
"It sets off a warning light, and we should take tangible steps before there is another political murder," he said.
Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer presented the ministers a copy of a letter he received. The letter described the Iraqi-born Ben-Eliezer as "the epitome of evil, a miserable Iraqi, a Nazi with Arab blood. You love Arabs more than Jews."
Ben-Eliezer then said to the ministers: "I am telling you: They will try to kill the prime minister," according to the Haaretz daily.
Sharon was outraged.
"I am shocked by this savagery. We need to take immediate practical steps," Sharon was quoted as saying before ordering police, legal authorities and security commanders to take action.
At Sunday's meeting, the Cabinet approved the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners in the near future, one of a series of agreements reached at last week's Mideast summit in Egypt.
Israel will also allow several dozen Palestinian militants who were expelled from the West Bank to return to their homes and gradually hand five West Bank towns to Palestinian control.
Senior commanders from both sides met late Sunday to coordinate the handover of Jericho, the first town to be turned over. Army Radio reported that the handover would take place in about 48 hours.
In line with the summit agreements, Israel will release another 400 Palestinian prisoners within three months.
The Palestinian prisoners to be freed constitute only a small fraction of the estimated 8,000 in Israeli jails. Palestinians are demanding that all be freed, while Israeli officials insist that with few exceptions, prisoners with "blood on their hands" cannot be considered.
Several hundred Palestinian workers from Gaza returned Sunday to jobs in Israel under the summit agreements. Before the outbreak of fighting more than four years ago, more than 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel.
Also, the Israeli army said the bodies of 15 Palestinians killed last year during attacks on Israeli settlements and army bases in the Gaza Strip would be handed over Monday to Palestinian authorities in Gaza for burial.
Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity that the new Cabinet would include Brig. Gen. Nasser Yousef, a military official who frequently fought with Yasser Arafat; Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan; and possibly Nasser al-Kidwa, the current Palestinian envoy to the United Nations and Arafat's nephew, as the new foreign minister.
The current foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, would be shifted to another Cabinet position, the officials said.