Outbursts by prominent rightist rabbis and an atmosphere of extremism fanned by foes of "disengagement" from Gaza next year has intensified concern about an attempt to kill Sharon, the erstwhile champion of settlers on captured territory, senior officials said on Wednesday.

Internal Security Service Minister Tsahi Hanegbi said the main threat would be posed by an assassin who might target Sharon just as ultra-nationalist Jew Yigal Amir shot dead Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

"The concern is about ... a lone assassin who sits in a room, takes on himself the responsibility for the redemption of Israel and gets up to carry out the deed," Hanegbi told army radio.

Hero to zero

Sharon has gone from being the darling of the pro-settler, right-wing camp to its adversary since announcing early this year plans to remove all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank by the end of 2005.

"There is no specific warning but because
of the atmosphere and the radicalisation of right-wingers, the assessments are
of a greater danger"

Shin Beth source

Since then the Shin Beth security service, which is assigned to protect Sharon, has tightened security around him. But Shin Beth sources said additional, unspecified steps were recently taken to protect Sharon from assassination.

"There is no specific warning but because of the atmosphere and the radicalisation of right-wingers, the assessments are of a greater danger," a Shin Beth source said.

Shin Beth chief Avi Dichter briefed the cabinet about rising radicalism among "disengagement" opponents at the government's weekly meeting on Sunday.

Unwanted guest

"The next assassination is at the doorstep," Carmi Gillon, who headed the Shin Beth in 1995, told army radio.
 
Concern about Jewish far-right violence heightened after an influential pro-settler rabbi issued a religious ruling last week saying it was permissible to kill someone sent to remove Jews from their land.

Jewish settlers are angry at
Sharon's 'disengagement plan'

It was under that ancient Jewish law of "Din Rodef" that Amir, an extremist Jew opposed to trading land for peace with the Palestinians, claimed to be acting when he fired fatal shots
at Rabin's back as he was leaving a Tel Aviv peace rally.

His assassination plunged regional peacemaking into crisis for years and ultimately helped derail the Oslo interim peace accords.
 
"We have learned much from the events of 1995. We know where the incitement leads," Hanegbi said. "It does not take much for one lone man, maybe a cell ... to take upon themselves what they think represents the will of the majority."

Polls show most Israelis back the initiative to shift the 7500 Jews in Gaza, who live alongside 1.3 million Palestinians.

However, outbursts by far-rightists vowing to fight any attempt to uproot settlements have increased.

One of them, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office director in the late 90s, urged settlers to attack soldiers sent to oust them with any weapon other than firearms.