Israel warns militants over Gaza


MIDDLE EAST: Israel would suspend the withdrawal, invade large parts of Gaza and occupy Palestinian towns near Jewish settlements that were being evacuated, if Palestinian militants fired at Israeli troops and settlers as they were pulling out of Gaza, the deputy defence minister warned yesterday.

In the event of Palestinian attacks, said Ze'ev Boim, Israel would "stop the withdrawal, we would deliver a harsh strike, a large-scale operation". Speaking to Israel Radio, Mr Boim repeated threats by Israeli leaders to launch major retaliatory strikes if militants open fire during the mid-August withdrawal, but he was more specific.

The operation, he said, would be "about the size of Defensive Shield, meaning about 10 days to two weeks of a heavy strike against terror, to uproot it".

The deputy defence minister was referring to the massive operation Israel launched in the West Bank in 2002 - following a wave of suicide bombings - during which it reoccupied major West Bank cities. There were reports late last week that Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had rejected a proposal by the army to launch a massive strike in Gaza before the pullout begins with the purpose of weakening militant groups.

Israel fears that militants from organisations such as Hamas, which view the unilateral withdrawal as a victory, will want to press home this point by ensuring the pullout takes place under fire. The Palestinian Authority, which has been badly weakened by four years of the intifada uprising, has had only limited success in getting militants to cease firing rockets into Israel.

The US wants Palestinian security forces to be supplied with ammunition to enforce law and order, especially with regard to militant groups. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however, is unenthusiastic, fearing the weapons will ultimately make their way into the hands of militants.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres said yesterday, however, that Israel should not necessarily be opposed to arming the Palestinian security forces. "If we tell the Palestinians to combat Hamas," he said, "we have to hear what their needs are."

The first settler families from Gaza, meanwhile, began arriving yesterday in the southern town of Nitzanim, where temporary housing has been built for them. Housing Minister Isaac Herzog said he was concerned, though, that "around half of the families will, on the morning of evacuation day, still be holed up" in Gaza.