JERUSALEM – The Israeli military will deal harshly with soldiers who refuse to dismantle Gaza (search) settlements this summer, Israel's defense minister said Tuesday, adding that some 30 soldiers have so far disobeyed orders.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also told Israel Army Radio he would prefer not to demolish the homes in the Gaza settlements. However, under an emerging agreement with the Palestinians, army bulldozers would knock down the houses and Israel would pay for the rubble to be removed by the Palestinians, Mofaz said. It remains unclear where the debris will be taken.
Mofaz also said Israel and Egypt were close to an agreement on how to secure the Gaza-Egypt border after the Israeli pullout. Israel would withdraw from a military patrol road between Gaza's southern edge and Egypt, and the Israeli troops there would be replaced by some 750 Egyptian officers, who would try to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Israel's Security Cabinet was discussing arrangements for Gaza on Tuesday.
The Israeli daily Haaretz said one issue was whether under international law Gaza would still be considered occupied territory after the withdrawal, and whether the Rafah crossing (search) between Gaza and Egypt could be moved to an area that abuts Israel.
Israel, which would have to leave Rafah after the pullout, is concerned about maintaining customs control over goods coming into Gaza. But it appears unlikely the Palestinians will agree to moving the border terminal.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav (search), meanwhile, said he was concerned about increasingly harsh statements and actions by withdrawal opponents.
Katsav spoke a day after what at first appeared to be a crude bomb was discovered at Jerusalem's central bus station and travelers were ordered to leave the area. No explosives were found in the package, which consisted of gas canisters and protruding wires. However, a note attached to the package read: "Disengagement will blow up in our faces," a reference to the Gaza withdrawal plan.
Katsav said most Gaza settlers are responsible people but "there is a minority that really concerns me, and the statements and acts of this extremist minority could lead to irreversible damage." Katsav said he counted among those extremists several rabbis and politicians.
Several influential settler rabbis have called on Israeli soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements, or to avoid doing service when called up. Israel's combat units including a growing number of religiously observant members, graduates of so-called "Yeshivot Hesder," or Jewish seminaries that combine study and military training.
Mofaz hinted Tuesday that seminaries whose rabbis urge soldiers to avoid participating in the Gaza withdrawal could be shut down. "I think we will have to think carefully how to deal with rabbis who instruct their students, their soldiers, to disobey orders. They cannot enjoy both worlds," Mofaz said.
The defense minister said the military would deal harshly with dissidents. "There are about 30 people ... who have disobeyed orders to this day," he said. "There will be no tolerance of those who disobey orders and those who call (on others) to disobey orders."
Mofaz said the 30 soldiers had already been punished.