Meanwhile, Labour opposition leader Shimon Peres came one step closer to becoming deputy premier on Monday - which could clear the way for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout plan to be expedited.

"We will maintain a determined stand against a decision that is, to our minds, a crime on a national and historical scale, of evicting Jews from their homes," Yesha Council chairman Bentzi Lieberman said.

But he added: "We will not call for a civil war, in any way."

Security officials have voiced fears that settlers could clash with soldiers during the evacuation.

Jail threat

Under a proposed law that has received preliminary parliamentary approval, Israelis could face up to five years in prison if they interfere with security forces sent to evacuate settlers who refuse to accept government compensation and leave.

Sharon says he is determined to
press ahead with the pullout

Israel is to dismantle all settlements from occupied Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank in 2005.

Yesha leaders, representing 240,000 settlers living mainly in the West Bank, said settlements would not be touched by the plan.

"I understand the pain ... [but] I am confident we will take all the necessary steps to make sure the law is upheld," said Sharon, a right-wing former general once considered by settlers as their champion.

Palestinians are also against the plan, fearing that it is a ruse to abandon impoverished Gaza at the cost of a stronger Israeli grip on the West Bank.

Both territories were seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Likud-Labour deal

Sharon is working to wrap up a deal with the opposition Labour Party to form a majority government capable of implementing the Gaza withdrawal.

Peres is expected to become
deputy premier in days

On Monday, a bill that would allow Labour leader Shimon Peres to become deputy premier passed its first reading in the Israeli parliament.

The amendment was adopted by a majority of 56 votes to 34 in the 120-member parliament.

The amendment now goes to the law commission before facing three parliamentary readings, the final obstacle to the entry of Labour into a new coalition government.

Coalition talks between Labour and Sharon's Likud have hit a final snag involving Peres, slated to become a second deputy prime minister.

Labour wants Peres to be authorised to fill in as acting premier when Sharon is away or incapacitated, but Israeli law only allows for one such post, currently held by Likud's Ehud Olmert.

A deal is expected to be signed as soon as the legal changes are made.