JERUSALEM -- Responding to death threats against government ministers, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered law enforcement agencies yesterday to crack down on Jewish extremists opposed to the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Cabinet ministers said the charged climate is reminiscent of the period before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and one minister warned that Sharon could become a target.
Despite those concerns, Sharon's Cabinet approved a list of 500 Palestinian prisoners to be released in coming days, and several hundred Palestinian workers were permitted to return to jobs in Israel in line with agreements reached at a Middle East summit last week.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, is to present a new Cabinet to his Fatah movement for approval tomorrow. Abbas is expected to appoint new interior, foreign, and information ministers but retain many current government members, officials said.
For months, Israeli officials have expressed concerns about opposition by extremists to the pullout plan. But with the planned withdrawal this summer quickly approaching and a recent warming of ties with the Palestinians, the level of alarm has been raised.
Sharon instructed law enforcement agencies to report to the Cabinet as soon as possible with steps that can be taken to "rein in the violent rampage" of extremists opposing his plan, a statement said.
Several Cabinet ministers said they have received threatening letters in recent days, and last week Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his car tires slashed and slurs were shouted at him while he attended a wedding. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, was targeted days after Education Minister Limor Livnat was whisked from an event at which hard-line Jews had screamed at her.
Extremists also have put up posters across the country threatening death for Sharon. The posters say Rabin and Sharon's late wife, Lily, are "waiting for Sharon."
Meir Sheetrit, one of the ministers who has received a threatening letter, said every step should be taken to punish those responsible for the threats.
"It sets off a warning light, and we should take tangible steps before there is another political murder," he said.
Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer presented the ministers a copy of a letter he received. The letter described Ben-Eliezer, who was born in Iraq, as "the epitome of evil, a miserable Iraqi, a Nazi with Arab blood."
"You love Arabs more than Jews," the letter said.
Ben-Eliezer then said to the ministers, "I am telling you: They will try to kill the prime minister," according to the Haaretz daily newspaper.
Sharon was outraged.
"I am shocked by this savagery. We need to take immediate practical steps," Sharon was quoted as saying before ordering police, legal authorities, and security commanders to take action.
In addition to releasing the prisoners, Israel also will allow several dozen Palestinian militants who were expelled from the West Bank to return to their homes and gradually hand five West Bank towns to Palestinian control.
Senior commanders from both sides were meeting late yesterday to coordinate the handover of the first town, Jericho, to Palestinian control, Army Radio reported.
In line with the summit agreements, Israel will release 400 more Palestinian prisoners within three months.
The Palestinian prisoners to be freed constitute a small fraction of the estimated 8,000 in Israeli jails. Palestinians are demanding that all be freed, while Israeli officials insist that with few exceptions, prisoners with "blood on their hands" cannot be considered.
Several hundred Palestinian workers from Gaza returned to jobs in Israel under the summit agreements. Before the outbreak of fighting more than four years ago, more than 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel.
Also, the Israeli army said the bodies of 15 Palestinians killed last year during attacks on Israeli settlements and army bases in the Gaza Strip would be handed over today to Palestinian authorities for burial.