JERUSALEM - A small ultra-Orthodox political party agreed yesterday to join Israel's ruling coalition, paving the way for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form a new government and push ahead with plans to uproot the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
At the same time, the Israeli leader issued his toughest warning yet to settlers and their supporters who are threatening to physically resist the evacuation of the communities.
"Whoever raises his hand to a soldier or a police officer or a member of the security forces, or whoever organizes refusal [of army orders], whoever makes threats - we will move against him with all our might," said the prime minister, addressing a group of Israeli soldiers.
Earlier in the week, these same troops arrived to dismantle an illegal settlement outpost in the northern West Bank and found themselves caught up in an ugly clash with young settlers.
Israelis were shocked by images of the settlers, most of them affiliated with a loosely organized extremist movement known as the "hilltop youth," shrieking "Nazis!" and throwing rocks and punches at soldiers and police.
The troops removed two rusting trailers that had been set up by settlers seeking to claim the barren hillside outside the settlement of Yitzhar.
Although no one was seriously injured in Monday's melee, Israelis shuddered at the sight of young soldiers being spat at and cursed by furious settlers. In a country where military service is mandatory for almost everyone, the army is a highly respected institution and one with which most citizens closely identify.
Unease over the incident was magnified by the fact that an off-duty soldier from Yitzhar donned his uniform, rushed to the scene and urged the troops to disobey orders to dismantle the outpost. The soldier, Sgt. Yosef Filant, was swiftly court-martialed and sentenced yesterday to 28 days in the stockade for conduct unbecoming a soldier, Israeli media reported.
Sharon plans to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four smaller communities in the West Bank later this year. Some settler leaders and rabbis have urged soldiers to disobey orders to participate in the evacuations, causing deep concern within the military. Senior officers have urged Sharon to deal harshly with any incitement to disobey.
In his speech to soldiers at a Jerusalem military base, Sharon said that for any citizen to take up arms against the country's own military was "a crime against Israeli society."
"I want to say to the inciters, the cursers and revilers ... if you want to protest, protest against me. If you want to revile, revile me," the prime minister said. "Leave politics in the political arena, and leave the Israel Defense Forces out of it."
Despite the escalating protests, Sharon's plan to evacuate settlements has broad public support. But many Israelis fear that Gaza will become a safe haven for Palestinian militants in the wake of an Israeli pullout.
Underscoring those fears, Palestinian militants in Gaza yesterday managed to make a rare strike at a nearby military installation in southern Israel. Twelve soldiers were wounded when their base was hit by rocket fire from inside the seaside strip.
Earlier yesterday, a Palestinian gunman tried to storm the main Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza but was fatally shot by Israeli troops. The crossing was closed, trapping thousands of Palestinians who hoped to leave Gaza for the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Two groups, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, claimed joint responsibility for the shooting attack.
Reining in the Palestinian militants will pose an enormous challenge for Mahmoud Abbas, expected to win Sunday's elections for the Palestinian Authority presidency. Abbas, campaigning yesterday, tempered the language he had used a day before when he described Israel as the "Zionist enemy."
Sharon's Gaza pullout plan received a major boost with yesterday's agreement in principle by the United Torah Judaism party to join his government. He already had secured an agreement with the left-leaning Labor Party to form an alliance. But that would have given him a bare majority in the Knesset.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.