Israel considers moving up pull-out plan

The Israeli government is considering moving up its mid-August withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, senior government officials said on Thursday, after a three-day mass protest against the pull-out tied up tens of thousands of security forces.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s point man on the Gaza evacuation, said he will favourably consider moving up the pull-out in light of the protest. Israel sent 20 000 police and soldiers to block the protesters from marching to the Gaza settlements to reinforce the settlers there.

“This confrontation saps a great deal of energy, disrupts the lives of all of the country’s residents [and] doesn’t lead to any advantage. So I would definitely weigh [an earlier withdrawal] favourably,” Olmert told Israel Radio.

Israeli officials might discuss moving up the pull-out with United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is due to arrive in the region later on Thursday, according to another senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said he hopes Rice’s visit will trigger a “comprehensive diplomatic process”, with Israel’s pull-out from Gaza as the first step.

The evacuation originally was to have begun in mid-July, but was pushed back to mid-August, ostensibly out of consideration for the religious Jews observing a three-week mourning period—beginning on Sunday—for the destruction of the biblical Jewish Temples.

Critics said the pull-out was delayed because the government was far behind in its preparations.

If pull-out opponents “think these are appropriate days for protest ...
I don’t think the government has to act differently”, Olmert said.

The senior official who spoke anonymously said there are no legal obstacles to moving up the pull-out, and that the matter will be discussed by Israeli officials, and possibly with Rice. But the lack of legal barriers doesn’t mean the withdrawal will be moved up, he said.

“Legally, there is no problem. But there are other problems—logistic problems, coordination [with the Palestinians], evaluation of the situation to minimise friction, and Palestinian terror,” the official said.

Rice hurriedly scheduled her trip to Israel last week as a five-month-old truce began falling apart amid a new wave of violence that threatened to freeze efforts for Israel to coordinate its Gaza pull-out with the Palestinians.

Rice, who travelled to the meeting last month to help foster cooperation between the two sides, plans to make a direct appeal to the Israelis and Palestinians to put down violence and remain committed to a peaceful withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers, and she will act as a go-between to resolve last-minute snags.

Rice is to meet Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Silvan Shalom on Thursday night. She plans to meet with Sharon on Friday and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday.

The standoff between security forces and pull-out opponents began on Monday after as many as 30 000 protesters converged on the southern Israeli farming village of Kfar Maimon with the goal of marching into nearby Gaza, in defiance of a government order banning non-residents from entering.

But with rings of soldiers and police preventing them from leaving for the Gaza settlements, where they had hoped to reinforce the thousands of settlers living there and make the pull-out more complex, pull-out opponents gave up their protest. By late on Thursday morning, only an estimated 200 to 300 remained, police spokesperson Avi Zelba said.

The soldiers and remaining protesters packed up their tents and prepared to board buses out of the area.

The fizzled protest was a severe setback for the settlement movement, but settler leader Bentsi Lieberman said early on Thursday that withdrawal opponents will infiltrate Gaza “little by little”, instead of in a mass march.

Pull-out opponents have been quietly smuggled into Gaza’s Gush Katif settlement bloc in the middle of the night in recent days and have been moving into new protest tent camps.

Settlers offered conflicting estimates of how many have made it into Gaza since the area was declared a closed military zone last week, with Lieberman putting it in the hundreds and a spokesperson for the settlers’ umbrella group, the Yesha Settlers Council, putting it at 2 000.

Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi estimated that dozens, not hundreds, have entered unauthorised. Military sources estimated 500 to 600 non-residents are currently living in the settlement bloc, but said most entered before the closure.

A Yesha spokesperson said the group will not call for another mass march toward Gush Katif, but will stick to a previously announced plan to follow the three-day protest by sending a steady wave of pull-out opponents into the settlement bloc. Spokesperson Emily Amrusy said she expects thousands more withdrawal opponents entering Gush Katif, in small groups or singly, over the next month.

“We haven’t finished,” Amrusy said. “The process we began on Monday will continue throughout the next month, continuously, in waves, and not as a one-time thing.”

The military said it has beefed up security at the main crossing into Gush Katif.

Zelba said 250 anti-pull-out activists were arrested overnight—most for trying to breach the closed military zone, and a few for trying to cut the fence around the territory.

Meanwhile, a boy was killed in the Gaza town of Khan Younis when a homemade rocket that Palestinian militants tried to fire at Israeli targets flew out of control and hit a house, Palestinian security officials said.—Sapa-AP