Jewish Settlers Vow to Break Law to Prevent Evacuations

Angry West Bank settlers promise disobedience campaign against PLO-Israeli plans

ELYAKIM HAETZNY, a retired lawyer and right-wing legislator who lives in this West Bank settlement, is bracing for a period of turmoil as Israel prepares to withdraw its soldiers from West Bank towns.

''There is already a whole generation of children who have been born in the settlements,'' says Mr. Haetzny, the leader of the Action Committee for Abolition of the Autonomy Plan.

''It is their home in a natural sense, and they will fight for their homes,'' he adds. ''No government will be able to touch us. If they did, this would mean civil war.''

The defiance campaign was given a moral boost Wednesday by the ruling of 1,500 influential Israeli rabbis of the Rabbinic Coalition that it is forbidden in terms of Jewish law for soldiers to evacuate Army camps or settlements on the West Bank and transfer them to another authority.

Right-wing religious and nationalist Israelis regard the West Bank as an integral part of the Biblical land of Israel given to them by God.

Last Thursday, the same group confirmed a halachic (religious Jewish law) ruling by the orthodox International Rabbinical Coalition for Israel forbidding Jews from relinquishing any part of the Promised Land.

Haetzny articulates the fear, anger, and frustration of about 130,000 Jewish settlers who have made their homes on this contested land, which is to be returned to the Palestinians as part of a phased-in peace accord.

Haetzny is a leading voice in the growing number of religious and nationalist settlers joining a civil-disobedience campaign to resist plans for a phased withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank over a two-year period due to begin next month.

Haetzny dismisses religious arguments and says his proposed actions are motivated from a secular point of view.

Last week, Haetzny's group launched a campaign based on an ''ethical code'' that calls on citizens - including reserve soldiers - to actively resist evacuation of settlements, to refuse to cooperate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's government, and collect information on ''peace crimes'' committed by government officials.

Settler leaders, who had a tense meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, have in recent weeks publicly threatened to shoot Palestinian security forces who will replace Israeli soldiers in the new autonomy areas.

After the meeting with Mr. Rabin, settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein said it would be wrong to shoot Palestinian police on roads used by Palestinians where alternative bypass roads for settlers exist. But he added that he feared confrontations near the Ramallah and Bethlehem where bypass roads are at least six months from completion.

''If we are attacked, we shall know how to defend ourselves,'' Haetzny says. ''If fights break out with the terrorist army [Palestinian police] and there are casualties, any Israeli government which does not intervene will fall.''

The Israeli government, which sanctioned and then encouraged the settler movement in the 1970s and '80s, is now portraying the ideological hard-liners in far-flung settlements as obstacles to the peace process.

But it is also using the presence of the settlers in the West Bank as a major bargaining chip in negotiations with Mr. Arafat to ensure a painstakingly slow withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and expansion of autonomy for Palestinians.

Haetzny insists that the settlers - along with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) - are an integral part of Israel's defense system and that a withdrawal would threaten the security of the Jewish state.

''If we don't have this foothold on the high ground [of Judea and Samaria], then we will not be able to maintain the state of Israel,'' he says.

The resistance campaign was bolstered recently by a ruling by United States and Israeli rabbis who gathered in New York last month.

And on July 7, the 1,000-member Union of Rabbis for Yisrael, meeting in Jerusalem, confirmed a religious ruling by the Orthodox International Rabbinical Coalition for Israel forbidding Jews from relinquishing any part of the Biblical land of Israel.

RABIN branded the rabbis as ''ayatollahs,'' referring to them as a ''very limited group of rabbis'' from the US. In the same interview with the Israeli newspaper Davar, he accused the rabbis of trying to torpedo moves to extend Palestinian self-rule and accused far right-wing elements of trying to delegitimize the Army.

But the two controversial rulings by the Rabbinic Coalition on forbidding soldiers to evacuate military bases and settlements and outlawing the handing-back of any part of the West Bank have the support of most mainstream and influential rabbis.

Under the latest agreement in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, signed in Washington in September 1993, Israeli troops will withdraw from main Palestinian towns by the end of August before Palestinian elections are held, probably in November.

The final choice of the settlers will be whether to opt for evacuation and compensation by the Israeli government, live under Palestinian rule in an emerging Palestinian state, or live in Israeli enclaves in Arab-ruled territory - an option neither the Palestinians nor Jews are likely to accept.

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