JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday accused radical Israeli settlers of trying to incite civil war by threatening security forces who might be ordered to evacuate them from homes in the Gaza Strip.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed into Jerusalem’s Zion Square hours later to protest Mr. Sharon’s initiative to abandon the territory on Israel’s southwest coast.
Carrying placards branding the prime minister a “dictator” and charging that he “has disengaged from the people,” the demonstrators listened as a series of speakers denounced the plan as illegitimate.
The tone of the rhetoric echoed the tinderbox atmosphere during the months preceding the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
A pamphlet published Friday and signed by leading conservative figures — including the father of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — urged soldiers and police officers to refuse orders to evacuate the 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip. Those who participate in the evacuation are liable to “regret it all their days,” said the leaflet, which described the withdrawal plan as “ethnic cleansing” and a “crime against humanity.”
Speaking during a Cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr. Sharon called the rhetoric incendiary and demanded that members of his Cabinet, some of whom oppose the disengagement plan, speak out against it.
“Recently, we have seen a severe campaign of incitement with intentional calls for civil war,” he said. “I think that the threats on [Israeli Defense Force] officers and security establishment personnel are a very grave phenomenon. Leave the IDF out of it.”
Mr. Sharon says he’s moving ahead with plans to clear the entire Gaza Strip of Israeli settlements, as well as removing four Jewish communities in the northern West Bank, even though activists in his Likud Party have rejected them.
But conservative critics say Mr. Sharon should seek a public mandate through a referendum or new elections because the unilateral-disengagement plan was not part of his platform in his 2003 vote campaign. Without the formal backing of the public, it is undemocratic of Mr. Sharon to push ahead with the plan, according to his critics.
Settler leaders have argued that it’s Mr. Sharon’s bulldozer tactics rather than their own rhetoric that would be blamed if violence erupts.
“Are we causing a civil war?” asked Avener Shimoni, the head of the Gaza Strip region, at the rally. “Arik, in your trampling style, it is you who are teaching us how to act. We are not lambs that you can expel from this place to another.”
Arik is Mr. Sharon’s nickname.
Right-wing intellectuals have equated the bulldozing of settlements to “transfer,” or the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank, a taboo concept in Israel’s political lexicon. Haggai Ben Artzi, a brother-in-law of Mr. Netanyahu’s, charged that the forced evacuation of Jewish settlers is a “Nazi” act.
And yet, one speaker after another at the Jerusalem rally denounced the idea of a civil war as well as the use of violence against soldiers. Instead, the demonstrators carried stickers that said, “We have love and it will prevail.”
Settler leaders are trying to be careful to avoid comparisons with the protests of 1995, especially a demonstration in the same Jerusalem plaza, during which pictures of Mr. Rabin were burned. At the same time, they are attempting to exonerate themselves from any responsibility for violence by arguing that the fighting will be the fault of security forces.
“At the moment of truth, the settlers council is babbling,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for Peace Now. “Ultimately, it will join the violence because they understand that they don’t have a majority of the people.”
Mr. Oppenheimer predicted that the settlers were trying to intimidate the government into backing down from the disengagement plan.
Indeed, sprinkled throughout the crowd were extremists who circulated fliers denouncing the nonviolent rhetoric. The flier quoted from the Bible: “A time to love and a time for hate.”
A teen protester held aloft a yellow flag with the picture of Meir Kahane, the radical rabbi from Brooklyn who was banned from Israel’s parliament for his racist ideology. Underneath the picture, the flag declared, “We are all Kahane.”