Minister tries to assuage Gaza settlers' anger

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz tried to assuage the anger of Gaza Strip settlers on Tuesday, saying he is willing to consider delaying the operation to uproot them from their homes.

After meeting leaders of the Gush Katif settlement bloc in southern Gaza, Mofaz said he is sympathetic to calls for the evacuation to be postponed by three weeks so it does not clash with a period of Jewish mourning that ends on August 14. The operation is currently scheduled to begin in late July.

“I am willing to consider delaying the evacuation for three weeks if it will ease things for the residents,” he said. “It’s not a done deal, but I am willing to consider this.”

His comments came after a meeting of a ministerial commission that deferred a decision on whether to delay the pull-out.

Israeli radio quoted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as telling ministers that a final decision on an exact date will be made soon but that he wants to consult with the planners of the pull-out to see how it will affect their preparations.

Sharon, who chaired the meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee charged with overseeing the pullout, has already indicated he favours a three-week delay.

The head of the disengagement office, Jonathan Bassi, had suggested at a Cabinet meeting on Sunday that the month-long operation be postponed to allow observant Jews to mourn the destruction of the second Jewish Temple.

The day to commemorate the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 70 AD falls this year on August 14, when many Jews will observe a 24-hour fast.

Some ministers have voiced their unhappiness that the decision to delay the pull-out will be seen as a cave-in to religious pressure.

“One delay will lead to another,” said minister without portfolio Shalom Simhon.

Agriculture Minister Israel Katz, who has been a consistent opponent of the pull-out, indicated that he will be pushing for a further delay, arguing that farmers need more time to prepare for their move.

“I will propose at the committee to delay evacuation until after the holidays at the end of October,” he told army radio ahead of the meeting.

Sharon, however, said any lengthy delay will create major problems.

“I really want to help as much as possible but such a delay is bound to create a lot of complications,” he was quoted as saying in a government statement after the meeting.

Plan looks like ‘Swiss cheese’

With the date of the evacuation process up in the air, a report in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot detailed how other preparations for the pull-out are still in disarray.

Only two of the 1 700 families who are due to be uprooted have so far received any compensation, while places have not been set aside at schools to accommodate children who are forced to leave their homes, the daily said.

“With three months to go to evacuation, the disengagement plan still looks like Swiss cheese,” said an editorial in Yediot.

“The planners forgot to look at the calendar before choosing a date, they didn’t bother to examine closely the maps to see exactly where the evacuees could be resettled and how, and failed to contemplate the nature and scope of compensation.”

Simhon, a member of the left-of-centre Labour, said it looks as if none of the necessary preparations will be completed on time.

“In any case will it be impossible for everything to be ready on the day of evacuation.
There is no chance of this happening,” he said.

The government’s efforts to prepare for the evacuation have been hampered by the reluctance of settlers to enter negotiations for fear that such a move would be interpreted as a de facto acceptance of their fate.

About 10 settler leaders did agree to meet Mofaz at talks outside the municipal headquarters in this Gaza settlement, although larger numbers were on hand to heckle him.

About 50 protesters, most of them youngsters, outside the community centre, started shouting and pushing when the minister turned up. Mofaz tried to speak to them, but they refused his advanced, shouting “We don’t want to talk to you” and “Mofaz resign”.

Rafi Seri, one of the leaders of the campaign against evacuation in Gaza, said he will refuse to meet with Mofaz.

“We have nothing to talk to him about, so we are not going in,” he said.—Sapa-AFP

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