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Israelis rally against Sharon plan

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Israeli protesters demonstrate against Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan in downtown Jerusalem´s Zion Square on Sept. 12. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli protesters demonstrate against Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan in downtown Jerusalem´s Zion Square on Sept. 12. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Sept. 12 (JTA) — Dictator — yes; traitor — no. Such were the distinctions guiding Sunday night’s rally in Jerusalem against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his “disengagement plan.” Smarting from Sharon’s warnings that his harsher pro-settler critics could spark civil war, demonstration organizers tore down one banner labeling the prime minister a traitor. But elsewhere in the crowd of tens of thousands, another sign, showing a grinning Sharon under the title “dictator,” remained aloft and undisturbed. The message was that he, not the demonstrators, was defying democracy and inviting violence with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank next year. “If the government does not put the decision to a referendum, or new elections, some sectors of the public could interpret it as an illegitimate decision,” said Hasdai Eliezer, the mayor of Alfei Menashe in the West Bank. “That is liable to bring the situation to a boiling point which we, as the settler leadership, fear.” Such conciliatory talk was a far cry from recent calls by other settler leaders for violent resistance against the evacuation of the Gaza Strip, and parts of the West Bank, under Sharon’s plan to “disengage” from conflict with the Palestinians in 2005. “These are calls that amount to civil war,” Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday. Later, the prime minister directed his admonitions to rebellious members of the ruling Likud Party. “Disputes are legitimate,” Sharon told Likud faithful at a Tel Aviv toast ahead of Rosh Hashanah. “But when the situation reaches the point of incitement and hatefulness, this cannot be, because our plans will be implemented,” he said, adding that “This can be done in good spirits, or it can be done amid tough and baseless struggles.” Anti-disengagement activists accuse Sharon of reversing on previous pledges not to make concessions on the biblical Land of Israel. But with polls showing that most Israelis — including some settlers — back withdrawals from Gaza and the West Bank, the prime minister has been unfazed by shows of oppositions such as Sunday’s rally. Channel Two television reported Sunday that the government would pay the first installment of relocation packages to settlers who move voluntarily after Rosh Hashanah. But as the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin showed, it only takes one extremist to change the course of Israeli history. In the weeks prior to his gunning-down, Rabin was lambasted in right-wing rallies as a “traitor.” Although that word was not mentioned at Sunday’s demonstration, the government was not taking any chances. Sharon, who has had his personal security boosted, ordered the Shin Bet to step up surveillance on far-right groups. That might be upgraded to “administrative detention” — the open-ended holding in custody of suspected terrorists — if the assassination threat grows. “I hope we will not have to resort” to administrative detention “against settlers or against religious leaders,” Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid told reporters. “But we are reserving our right to do so if necessary.”

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