His comments come after settler leaders told army commanders that thousands of soldiers might disobey orders to carry out the withdrawal.

Israeli defence leaders said they feared the planned pullout might be derailed by soldiers refusing to comply.

Settler leaders have stepped up their campaign to oppose the evacuation, and hundreds of settlers on Tuesday gathered outside Israel’s parliament in protest.

“I don’t believe that soldiers can refuse orders,” said Mr Sharon, speaking to a group of international Jewish youth.

“We will be very strict on this issue. The law will be upheld,” he said.

The planned evacuation is scheduled to begin in July.

“I am afraid that the army may not be able to implement the pullout plan if the phenomenon of refusing orders grows and is taken up by thousands of soldiers,” said Israel’s deputy defence minister Zeev Boim.

“I am asking the leaders of Yesha (the main settlers’ council) to show some responsibility and not participate in the destruction of the army by calling for the law to be violated and to not implement decisions which have been taken democratically.”

The Israeli cabinet has approved the withdrawal program in principle, and parliament has backed it by a large majority.

Mr Sharon on Monday said a final cabinet vote on the withdrawal could take place later this month.

At a meeting with army officials, settler leaders warned the army should prepare for the possibility of mass insubordination during the evacuation.

Yesha’s chairman Bentzi Lieberman said his group would not actively foment rebellion in the ranks, and would have no control over it.

“We agree with you that this is dangerous, but the situation isn’t in our hands, but rather resides with the political echelon,” said Mr Lieberman during the meeting.

“We can come to the (settler) public and tell it not to disengage from the nation only after it has had its say, prior to disengagement, in elections or a referendum.”

Former rabbi chief Avraham Shapira has led calls for the soldiers to refuse orders, and other supporters of the 8,000 Jewish settlers have organised mass petitions in support of the action.

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