JERUSALEM (AP) – A sharp escalation in right-wing threats and rhetoric ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has put security forces on alert and evoked memories of the hate-filled atmosphere that preceded the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Jewish extremists say they are planning a full-fledged rebellion. In interviews, several said they were recruiting fighters and instructing followers to resist eviction by force.

The warnings have put the nation’s leaders on edge.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said this week he feels at risk. His police minister, Tsachi Hanegbi, warned that extremists are plotting assassinations, though later officials clarified that he was speaking from an assessment of the charged political atmosphere rather than from specific intelligence.

In a sign of the times, Israeli television showed footage of Jewish settlers at a Gaza synagogue being instructed in resistance tactics by members of the outlawed extremist group Kach.

“If policemen and soldiers come with weapons to throw little children and women from their homes, what do you expect? People to give them roses?” said Noam Federman, a leader of militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Sharon says Israel will abandon the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by the end of 2005 as part of a strategy to reduce attacks on Israelis and preserve Israel’s Jewish character by giving up territory with large Arab populations.

But many settlers consider the withdrawals to be a concession to Palestinian violence. Some are religious Jews who believe the land is promised to the Jews in the Bible.

Security officials expect most of the 7,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza to take government compensation and leave peacefully. The Yesha Council, a settler umbrella group, stresses that it rejects violence against fellow Jews, though Eran Sternberg, a settler spokesman in Gaza, told The Associated Press: “I cannot be responsible for everyone.”

After Rabin’s assassination in November, 1995, many felt the country missed the warning signs in the heated debate over Rabin’s planned compromises with the Palestinians. Officials now appear eager not to repeat the mistake.

Sharon, then in the right-wing opposition, was among those accused of fanning the fires that preceded Rabin’s murder.

This week the retired army general lamented that after spending his life in wars defending the Jews, he needs “protection from Jews.”

Back in 1995, settlers routinely referred to Rabin as a traitor, and hard-line rabbis said he was subject to a death sentence.

Avigdor Neventzal, a senior Jerusalem rabbi, made a similar statement last month, saying anyone who removes Jewish settlements from the West Bank could be subject to the death penalty under biblical law.

Although Neventzal said the sentence wasn’t applicable in modern times, some politicians said extremists could view his ruling as legitimizing murder.

The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, Avi Dichter, touched off a political storm last week when he warned Sharon’s Cabinet of growing militancy among hard-line settlers.

In response, police and the prime minister’s security detail have improved their coordination, a security official said.

On Monday, militant Itamar Ben-Gvir was banished from an event in the Israeli city of Herzliya attended by Sharon, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ben-Gvir was among activists seen on television telling Gaza settlers how to resist eviction. “You think you’re right, go for it … Anything goes,” he told the settlers.

Federman, the Hebron settler leader, said his people are gearing up for a fight. Sharon, he said, should stand trial for treason and be sentenced to life imprisonment or “death by hanging.”

“He should understand that if he crosses a red line the people will cross a red line, too,” said Federman, who was released from prison last month after being held for eight months without charge under special regulations governing alleged security threats.

Federman and other extremists accuse Sharon of using the supposed threat of assassinations to deflect attention from his controversial withdrawal plan.

But another senior security official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the threats are serious.

Recent polls have shown that more than two-thirds of Israelis favor leaving Gaza. But Menachem Friedman, an Israeli expert on religious extremism, said it takes only a few people to stoke violence. Like their counterparts among the Muslims, he said, Jewish militants believe God is on their side.

They believe they know “what is the righteous way and what is the devil’s way … They have the key to history,” Friedman said.

AP-ES-07-10-04 1237EDT



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