A Jewish settler leader urged followers yesterday to resist the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, signaling a shift toward revolt after settlers lost hope of stopping the pullback by political means.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is close to signing a coalition agreement with the moderate Labor Party, which would stabilize his government and guarantee strong political support for the Gaza withdrawal.
For months, settler leaders had been confident they could stop the Gaza plan with political lobbying and bring down Sharon, if necessary. Last summer, the settlers' political patrons had quit the coalition, weakening Sharon's government. Settlers also enjoyed strong support among many legislators in Sharon's Likud Party.
However, Sharon outmaneuvered his opponents, including those in Likud.
The call to disobedience issued by Pinchas Wallerstein, a former leader of the Yesha Settlers' Council, who sent letters around the West Bank, saying settlers should resist evacuation even if it means going to prison.
The withdrawal plan is accompanied by special legislation which says anyone physically resisting the dismantling of settlements faces up to three years in prison. The bill requires two more votes before becoming law.
The Yesha Council was to meet later yesterday to decide whether to adopt Wallerstein's appeal, which would mark the first time the organization is formally advocating breaking the law.
"I want a large part of the public that I believe are willing to go to prison to say so today so the decision-makers will understand where we are going," Wallerstein told Israel's Army Radio. "I believe that what I represent is the central line in the Yesha Council."
Sharon, a former settler patron, said Wallerstein's statement was "harsh." Sharon said he understood the pain of the settlers, but that they must not break the law.
Wallerstein said he did not support using force against soldiers involved in the evacuation. Calling the withdrawal plan an "immoral crime," Wallerstein said: "If someone who opposes this law has to go to prison. I am ready to go to prison."
Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, secretary of the Yesha Council, said the group has not yet decided whether to support Wallerstein's position. "There is certainly a significant escalation here both in the expression and the direction and therefore we have to consider ... our position opposite these un-usual statements," Mor-Yosef said.
But Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of the dovish Peace Now group, said Wallerstein's statements violate the law, and called on the attorney general to open an investigation.
"The settler leaders were and remain a group of bullies that don't respect the law," Oppenheimer told Army Radio. "Sitting quietly will allow the anarchy to continue and will encourage revolt."
Twenty-five settlements -- 21 in Gaza and four in the West Bank -- are to be dismantled between July and September.
In the political arena, Labor and Likud are close to signing a coalition deal.
However, a last-minute snag emerged over the role of Labor leader Shimon Peres, who insisted on being given the title of vice premier. Under law, there can only be one vice premier, and the post is held by Sharon confidant Ehud Olmert.
Sharon said yesterday he was confident he will be able to sign the deal.