By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has received dozens of death threats from people who fear Jewish settlements in the West Bank will be disbanded as part of peacemaking with the Palestinians, officials said on Wednesday.
In November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu infuriated settlers by partially freezing new housing in the enclaves for 10 months. He called the moratorium a bid to coax Palestinians into resuming U.S.-sponsored negotiations suspended a year ago.
"Dozens of threats have been received in recent weeks against the (defence) minister in the form of letters," said an Israeli defence official, who declined to be named.
Appearing in Tel Aviv, ex-general Barak did not provide details on the threats but described them as a response to the construction freeze. Though accompanied by unusually large number of bodyguards, he made clear he was unfazed.
"I wouldn't tread on a fly if I didn't have to, and, when necessary, I'm not afraid of anything or anyone," he said in a speech. "The country has an elected government. When an elected government makes a decision, this decision must be implemented."
About half a million settlers live among 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 war. Palestinians want those territories, as well as the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, for a state.
Israel has said it would evacuate isolated settlements while annexing major settlement blocs under any peace accord. That, like Netanyahu's moratorium, has been rejected by Palestinians as inefficient. Washington wants a settlement freeze, for now.
A security source said Israel's Shin Bet domestic intelligence service believes there are "a couple of dozen" settlers or sympathisers who would be willing to attack a government figure in a bid to scotch any West Bank withdrawals.
There may be up to a further 1,000 people who would support such actions, or attacks on Palestinians aimed at diverting Israeli forces from settler evacuations, the source said.
Many Israelis consider the West Bank a Jewish birthright. In 1995, an ultranationalist shot dead then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he signed interim peace accords which gave the Palestinians a measure of self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza.
The far-right Israeli opposition party National Union accused the Netanyahu government of exaggerating the assassination spectre in order to besmirch the settlers.
"We see this as cheap spin," said spokesman Itamar Ben-Gvir.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; editing by Richard Williams)
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