JERUSALEM – Jewish settlers said Tuesday that they'll take their fight to the streets, and militants among them threatened violence and civil war, inflammatory comments a day after they lost the final political battle against Israel's planned Gaza withdrawal.
Settlers pledged to mobilize tens of thousands of protesters this summer to prevent troops from evacuating all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip (search) and four in the West Bank (search). They said they would try to shut down large areas of the country by blocking roads and intersections.
Security officials fear increasingly desperate settlers will resort to violence to disrupt the pullout. Possible scenarios include an attack on a disputed holy site in Jerusalem or an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).
Pinchas Wallerstein, a settler leader, said he and others would try to refrain from violence, but that the situation might spin out of control. "We don't intend to compromise in the battle," he told Israel Army Radio.
Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said he believed protests against the pullout have already peaked and that settler activists would have trouble organizing large rallies now that they have lost the political fight.
On Monday, Israel's parliament voted down a proposal to hold a national referendum on the withdrawal, depriving pullout opponents of the last major political weapon in their arsenal. A referendum would have delayed and possibly scuttled a withdrawal. During Monday's debate and vote, thousands of settlers, many of them teenagers, demonstrated outside parliament.
Parliament was also expected to approve the 2005 state budget later Tuesday, two days before a deadline. Failure to pass the spending plan would have brought down Sharon's government and forced new elections. Until a few days ago, Sharon did not have a parliamentary majority. However, an about-face by the opposition Shinui Party over the weekend was expected to give Sharon the votes he needs.
The government has given the 8,500 Gaza settlers until the last week of July to leave voluntarily, in exchange for compensation payments. After that deadline, thousands of police and soldiers will begin removing settlers by force. So far, 66 settler families have negotiated an agreement with the government. It remains unclear how many more would leave voluntarily before the July deadline, and how many would choose to fight.
The Yesha Settlers' Council charged that Sharon "brutally prevented the possibility of allowing the people to decide" about a referendum, warning of a "violent confrontation and civil war."
Legislator Arieh Eldad, of the ultranationalist National Union faction, said he was certain the confrontation would turn deadly, and that he held Sharon responsible. "He (Sharon) sentenced a lot of people to death because he wants a national trauma. The victims will be the settlers," Eldad said.
On Sunday, the Israeli navy practiced evacuating settlers by sea, media reporters and settlers said. Arieh Yitzhaki, a resident of the Kfar Yam settlement on Gaza's Mediterranean coast, told Army Radio that navy commandos in rubber boats packed with equipment were spotted near the settlement.
Yitzhaki said settlers are now "building the Jewish army." He said withdrawal opponents plan to block the roads from the center of the country to Gaza to prevent troops from reaching the coastal strip.
Other plans include pitching tents around the settlement to house protesters coming from outside the strip, to rent portable toilets and to stockpile supplies, Israeli media said. Israel TV reported that leaders were threatening to tear down border fences to enter the territory despite an army ban.
However, the Israeli military is trying to block an influx of protesters and plans to declare Gaza a closed military area at least 45 days before the forcible evacuation is to begin.
As part of their protests, withdrawal opponents have also appealed to the Supreme Court. A hearing before an expanded panel of 11 judges is set for April 8. Such a large panel is generally reserved for landmark cases, but legal analysts said it was unlikely the court would strike down the law that provides the framework for withdrawal and compensation payments for settlers.
In other developments, the Palestinians' ruling Fatah Party (search) decided to call its first ever primaries, ahead of July legislative elections, party officials said.
Fatah fears defeat in the parliament elections by the increasingly popular Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups. Party leaders opted for primaries under growing pressure from younger activists, who say internal elections are the only way to field new candidates who might still stand a chance at the polls.