ISRAELI Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hit back yesterday at extremist opponents of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, saying that heightened rhetoric could lead to civil war.
Mr Sharon issued the warning hours before tens of thousands of opponents of his Gaza pullout plan protested in Jerusalem.
"We are witness in recent days to the most grave incitement and I would say calls that are actually aimed at causing a civil war," Mr Sharon said at the beginning of yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting. "I view this with utmost gravity."
Israeli security officials have repeatedly expressed concern that opponents of Mr Sharon's "disengagement" plan would take up arms.
Last week, a group of prominent Israeli hardliners published a call to soldiers to disobey orders to carry out the withdrawal.
On Friday, settler leaders asserted that Mr Sharon had no mandate to carry out the withdrawal, calling the plan a "nazi act" and warning that it could lead to civil war.
"When you feel the winds, many feel the Prime Minister has crossed all the lines and is no longer seen as legitimate," Gaza Strip settler spokesman Eran Sternberg said yesterday, adding: "This prepares the ground for violence."
Jewish extremism expert Menachem Klein warned: "What you see here is a break inside the Israeli establishment, a break inside the Israeli mainstream.
"This is the classic initial step for a civil war," he said.
Security officials say that they are concerned about two scenarios - an assassination attempt on Mr Sharon or an attack on the revered al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.
The officials are reportedly considering pre-emptive arrests of Jewish extremists, although no decisions have been made.
Mr Sharon, who refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians, has pledged to go forward with the plan to quit Gaza and four small West Bank settlements next year.
The prime minister says that the pullout will coincide with moves to strengthen large West Bank settlements.
But Mr Sharon's opponents accuse him of caving in to Palestinian violence and fear that the withdrawals will lead to further pullbacks from the West Bank.
Palestinians lobbed mortar shells at the Israeli settlement of Netzarim in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, hours after Israeli troops ended a raid of the area which was meant to stop such attacks.
Four days of fighting around the towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun and the outskirts of the sprawling Jebaliya refugee camp left eight Palestinians dead and more than 100 wounded.
Two dozen Palestinian homes were demolished and tens of thousands of people left without water and electricity.
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