Ariel Sharon

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warns opponents of his disengagement plan against using violence. The warning comes amid increasing concerns about possible civil unrest as Israel prepares to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and small portions of the West Bank.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Jewish Agency Tuesday, Prime Minister Sharon issued a stern warning to Jewish settlers and their supporters.

He said even though those who use violence against the security forces or call on soldiers to disobey orders are a small minority their actions endanger Israel's existence as a democratic, Jewish state.

The prime minister's warning comes just two days after a group of settlers set upon soldiers sent to demolish some abandoned buildings along a Gaza beachfront. Nearly a dozen protesters and an equal number of soldiers were injured in the scuffle. One soldier at the scene refused to take part in the operation and instead shouted his support for the settlers. The soldier, Corporal Avi Bieber, was arrested and faced a disciplinary hearing because of his actions.

Mr. Sharon again outlined his reasons for ordering the evacuation of over eight thousand settlers from Gaza.

"We are leaving the Gaza Strip," he said "where there is no chance whatsoever to consolidate a Jewish majority." He said that efforts should be directed at areas most important for Israel's existence.

He listed the Negev in the south, the Galilee in the north, greater Jerusalem, the major West Bank settlement concentrations and what he termed security areas, which is understood to mean much of the Jordan River Valley and areas around major Jewish settlement blocks.

Such words are likely to confirm the fears of Palestinians. While Palestinians generally welcome an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, many also see it as an Israeli ploy to strengthen Israel's control over major portions of the West Bank and Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as part of their future state.