Israeli settler leaders Monday backed a call to resist the planned evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, even if it means going to jail, but said they remain opposed to using violence.
The announcement signaled a shift toward revolt, as settlers’ hopes dwindle for stopping the pullback through political means.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel won’t participate in a Mideast peace conference proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, days after officials said Israel was prepared to attend. Blair is expected to discuss the conference during a trip to the region this week.
At a news conference, the Yesha Settlers’ Council, which represents residents of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, endorsed a call to disobedience by Pinchas Wallerstein, a former leader of the group.
‘An immoral decision’
“The Yesha council stands behind Pinchas Wallerstein,” said Bentsi Lieberman, head of the council. “The proposal to expel Jews from their homes is an immoral decision and a breach of human rights.”
Wallerstein sent letters around the West Bank, saying settlers should resist evacuation even if it means going to prison.
“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.”
Lieberman called on the group’s followers to refrain from violence. Still, the call was the first time Yesha has formally advocated breaking the law. Leaders had previously called for peaceful resistance.
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.
Sharon calls letter ‘harsh’
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.
The settler call to resistance came as Sharon moved closer to forming a new government with the dovish opposition Labor Party. The alliance would stabilize the government and guarantee strong political support for the Gaza withdrawal.
Ran Cohen, an opposition lawmaker with the dovish Yahad Party, harshly criticized the settlers, accused Wallerstein of “a declaration of war.”
“I think this was a call for rebellion that will lead in the end to political murder,” he said.
In 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to his peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians.
Israel to sit out conference
Also Monday, Sharon said Israel would not participate in an international Mideast conference that Britain is considering hosting.
Last week, a Sharon adviser said Israel was prepared to attend, provided the conference focuses on the Palestinian economic revival and government reform, and not on issues to be negotiated by Israel and the Palestinians.
The Palestinians want the conference to deal with “final status issues,” including borders and the future of Jerusalem.
In a meeting with visiting Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, Sharon said that “we will not participate, but we understand its importance,” according to a statement by Sharon’s office.
A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel welcomes the conference, but believes it would be inappropriate to participate.
“We do not consider this event to be a political conference, and that is what we were told,” Sharon said.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called Sharon’s decision “very unfortunate.”