Israel’s Cabinet easily defeated a proposal to postpone next month’s pullout from Gaza at a meeting Sunday that reflected fears of violent opposition to the withdrawal — each of the ministers was fitted for a bulletproof vest.
The 18-3 Cabinet vote found Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the author of the pullout, opposing Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a powerful rival who was once premier and wants the job again.
As the mid-August start date for the withdrawal nears, opponents are stepping up their campaign. Though Sharon says the pullout will strengthen Israel’s hold on its main West Bank settlement blocs, settlers and their backers believe he will be forced into further pullbacks if he goes ahead with this one. Also, the Orthodox Jews dominating the opposition believe the government cannot relinquish any part of what they consider God-given biblical Israel.
The withdrawal would mark the first time Israel removes veteran settlements from the West Bank or Gaza. All 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank are to be emptied of their approximately 9,000 residents.
Opposition tactics range from harmless orange ribbons on car antennas to blocking highways in sitdown strikes and attacking Palestinians in Gaza.
The 21 ministers gathered on an upper floor of the prime minister’s office just before the Cabinet met and were measured for the vests by Israel’s Shin Bet security service.
The Shin Bet will assess daily the level of threat from Jewish extremists opposed to the withdrawal, and will instruct ministers on when to wear the vests, defense officials said on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.
Recent polls show an increase in support for the withdrawal after a steady erosion. A poll published Friday showed support climbed to 62 percent from 53 percent in early June. Opposition was down to 31 percent from 38 percent.
Families begin moving
At least eight settler families have moved out of their homes in the 25 settlements in recent days, including two in Gaza and six in the West Bank. If growing numbers of families leave voluntarily before the government’s deadline, withdrawal opponents could be weakened considerably.
Leading the opposition are members of Sharon’s own Likud Party. Sharon himself was the main force behind settlement construction until his sudden change of heart 18 months ago, when he presented the pullout plan. Netanyahu has toyed since then with formally challenging Sharon over the withdrawal.
Also Sunday, an Israeli border policeman died of his injuries after he fell chasing Palestinian rock-throwers protesting construction of Israel’s separation barrier outside Jerusalem, police said.
Meanwhile, an Israeli settlement watchdog group asked the Supreme Court to order the demolition of a small, unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost, hoping to establish a precedent that will allow it to target dozens of similar communities slated for removal under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
The Peace Now group filed the petition against the Amona outpost north of Jerusalem, home to 25 families and 53 mobile homes. It said the homes are on private Palestinian land.