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Jewish settlers, troops clash in West Bank

Army arrests soldier accused of urging unit to defy evacuation

JERUSALEM -- Jewish settlers clashed yesterday with Israeli troops who came to tear down two structures at an unauthorized West Bank outpost, and a soldier was arrested for allegedly encouraging comrades to refuse to evacuate the settlement, the army said.

Also yesterday, Palestinian militants said a call by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for an end to rocket attacks on Israel was "a stab in the back of the resistance."

Early today, six Palestinians were killed and eight wounded in the northern Gaza Strip by what Palestinian hospital officials said was Israeli tank fire. The Israeli fire came in response to Palestinian mortar attacks on an industrial zone near the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. The Israeli military said an Israeli was lightly hurt by the mortar fire, but had no comment on the Israeli tank fire.

On the West Bank, a soldier was wounded and several settlers were arrested in the clashes at the tiny outpost Mitzpe Yizhar, which erupted amid tensions stemming from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate settlements in Gaza.

The arrested soldier, a resident of the settlement outpost, is from the unit that carried out the demolition -- but he was on leave at the time, the army said.

The soldier, in uniform and carrying his rifle, refused to leave one of the structures and called on his comrades to refuse to carry out their orders, the army said.

Mitzpe Yizhar is an unauthorized satellite of the government-approved Yizhar settlement, which has a population of about 300 ultranationalist residents.

Settler leaders warned that hundreds of soldiers could refuse to carry out orders to evict Gaza Strip settlers, a sign of the difficulties the army could face in enforcing a withdrawal.

Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements has drawn stiff opposition from hard-liners in his government and among Jewish settler groups.

At a meeting late Sunday, settler leaders told the army's top brass to prepare for the possibility of mass insubordination during the evacuation, adding that they were powerless to stop it.

"I have to be honest with the heads of the army about where the implementation of this draconian law will lead," settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein told Army Radio yesterday. "If there will be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of insubordinates, it will take the state of Israel decades to rehabilitate its society."

Sharon pledged that soldiers who refuse to carry out orders will be harshly punished, saying, "The law will be upheld."

Abbas -- the front-runner in the presidential election this Sunday to replace Yasser Arafat -- campaigned in Gaza for a third day, telling supporters that thousands of refugees displaced after Israel's establishment should be allowed to return to their former homes.

"We will never forget the rights of the refugees, and we will never forget their suffering. They will eventually gain their rights, and the day will come when the refugees return home," said Abbas, himself a refugee from Safed, now an Israeli city.

On Sunday, Abbas called on militants to stop firing rockets at Israel. Yesterday, several Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, released a joint statement demanding Abbas apologize for the statement.

The statement called Abbas' comments "a stab in the back to the resistance . . . because the resistance has proved that this is the only way to respond to the crimes of the occupation."

Opinion polls indicate that most Israelis surveyed said they support the plan to evacuate 8,200 Gaza Strip and 600 West Bank settlers. But many of the 230,000 Jewish settlers, led by religious ideologues who believe the West Bank and Gaza are the biblical birthright of Jewish people, are strongly opposed.

With political efforts to sink the withdrawal foundering, opponents have turned to other means to scuttle the plan.

Last week, government officials overseeing the pullout were prevented from entering four West Bank settlements slated for evacuation when settlers blocked their bus by lying on the road holding infants to their chests.

Yesterday, hundreds of Jewish settlers danced, sang, and studied in the rain outside Israel's parliament in a sit-in protest.

The demonstrators set up a tent, where they said they would eat, sleep, and study for the next three weeks. Some used protest signs to shelter themselves from pouring rain, while others distributed bumper stickers with protest slogans.

The Palestinians "want to get rid of Israel, and this is the first step for them," said Amy Rosenbluh, 53, a Jewish settler who emigrated from Cambridge, Mass.

The Settlers' Council has deemed it acceptable to break the law when opposing the evacuation plan but has said it does not support insubordination.

Also yesterday, an armed Palestinian died from wounds suffered Sunday in a brief Israeli operation in northern Gaza aimed at ending persistent Palestinian rocket and mortar fire on Israeli towns.

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