JERUSALEM — Israel’s police and security service chiefs ordered intensified guard around top officials this week after a series of death threats were made against Cabinet ministers and others by opponents of Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza-West Bank disengagement plan.
Last Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting heard from ministers who read aloud from threatening letters that they and their families have received from right-wing extremists. The Cabinet also heard an account from Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of an incident last week in which his bodyguards hustled him out of a wedding reception at Kfar Chabad, a Hasidic enclave, after he was accosted and jostled by an angry crowd that reportedly threw objects at him and slashed his tires.
Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz, commander of the West Bank civil administration, also received a death threat this week. The letter, calling Paz “worse than Judenrat” — using the word for Nazi-established Jewish councils — and warning that he would be “punished by heaven,” was described as the first such threat ever directed against an army general.
Government and security officials say that opposition to the disengagement plan by settlers and their supporters has escalated in tone in the last month, since the election of the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and the subsequent warming of Israeli-Palestinian ties. Demonstrations by settler activists, previously placid and marked by calls for national unity, have turned increasingly confrontational. On Monday an estimated 30,000 pro-settler activists staged coordinated rallies around the country, in which highways were blocked. Ten police officers were injured in clashes with protesters.
On Wednesday, police were on high alert for clashes outside the Knesset, when the house was to vote final passage of a bill authorizing compensation for settlers to be evacuated. The bill also authorizes stiff punishment for anyone resisting the pullout, including six months for settlers refusing to leave and two years for Israelis entering the target areas after troops close them off in advance of the pullout.
Responding to the threats, Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra called Sunday for known far-right leaders to be locked up without trial under administrative detention, a measure usually reserved for suspected terrorists. But Shin Bet security service officials said there was not enough evidence to move against individual rightists.
An appearance Monday by Sharon himself before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee turned into a shouting match during which a former minister, Effi Eitam of the right-wing National Religious Party, was ejected from the committee chamber by Knesset guards. Eitam accused Sharon of “incitement” against “an entire public” after Sharon reported on the death threats.
Sharon told the Knesset panel his family had hired guards for his late wife’s gravesite, after rightists threatened to exhume and desecrate her body.
Later that same day, Eitam’s own party dismissed him as its chairman, after a party disciplinary panel ruled that he had violated his trust when he resigned from Sharon’s coalition last June despite a vote by party leaders to stay in the government.
At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of the Labor Party read aloud a letter he received two weeks earlier, which said: “You have Arab blood. Leave the Land of Israel and go back to Iraq to defend Saddam Hussein, you bastard. You miserable Iraqi soul with Arab Nazi blood in your veins — may you know only sorrow and pain. Damn you, you scum.”
Ben-Eliezer, an Iraqi-born ex-general, told ministers that in 1995, “a month before Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, I was warning against mounting political violence just like now and saying that we should hold a special discussion about it, but Rabin silenced me and nobody else listened.”
“It starts with them hitting soldiers,” Ben-Eliezer said, referring to recent clashes between settlers and troops trying to dismantle illegal settlement outposts. “There are threats to all of our lives.”
Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit of Likud, Sharon’s point man for Knesset passage of the disengagement legislation, said he received a letter two weeks earlier warning that he would “witness your children’s funerals.” He said he had received dozens more letters threatening his own life. Some letters blamed his political views for the cancer death of his daughter Miri a decade ago at age 14. He said he had kept silent until now so as not to frighten his family.
“Steps had better be taken before another political assassination takes place,” Sheetrit said.
Sharon responded that it was “incredible that threats are being sent to ministers and nothing is being done.” He said he would instruct security officials to present a plan within two weeks for dealing with the threats.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has also received letters threatening him and his family, including a package containing a meat hook.
In an interview, Ezra said that police faced “problems” addressing threats, ranging from inadequate intelligence to overly lenient judges.
Ezra also said that while he favors administrative arrest of right-wing radicals to pre-empt violence, the Shin Bet still has not handed over a list of extremists. “I’m under the impression that the Shin Bet does not believe that the names would be approved by the attorney general and that it does not want to expose its sources.”
Shin Bet sources said the agency opposes administrative detention, because intelligence about radicals is insufficient to justify arrests. The sources suggested that other means, such as restraining orders, can be used against known radicals and then arrests can be made if orders are violated. The sources said administrative detention would only intensify anti-establishment feelings among the extremists and broaden their public support.
Military and police sources said this week that dozens of anti-disengagement activists had changed their addresses on their government identity cards to Gaza settlements in order to get past army and police checkpoints as the disengagement nears. The activists plan to resist the evacuation from within the settlements.
The army and police intend to prevent anyone who is not a resident of Gush Katif, the main Gaza settlement bloc, from entering the area to reduce the number of people they face during evacuation.
The head of the government’s disengagement authority, Yonatan Bassi, told a Knesset committee this week that all but four of the 24 settlements to be dismantled were in some form of negotiation over relocation to new communities inside Israel’s 1967 border. Based on these talks, Bassi predicted that the percentage of settlers refusing to evacuate will be smaller than originally expected.