Israeli army confident it can manage difficult evacuation


PALESTINE: Up to 5,000 opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza have so far managed to sneak into the Jewish settlements in the Strip in a bid to thwart the pull-out which begins this morning, Israel's army chief revealed yesterday.

But Lt Gen Dan Halutz insisted that the evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza would go ahead unhindered.

"In the end, three or four or even 5,000 people will not prevent the IDF [ Israel defence forces] and the Israel police from carrying out the law of the Knesset and the decision of the cabinet," he said.

"They may make it more colourful. I hope they do not make it more violent."

Several months ago, the army had confidently predicted that it could seal off Gaza to anti-pull-out protesters. Senior officers had also predicted that over half of the settlers - there are 7,500 in the Strip - would have left by the time the evacuation begins. They now believe the number will be much smaller.

Nevertheless, like Lt Gen Halutz, senior officers remain confident they can carry out the evacuation within the allotted three weeks and that there is no need to fundamentally alter their plan.

The military operation is comprised of six concentric rings of troops, each with a different mission. A total of some 50,000 soldiers and police will be involved in the operation - the biggest deployment of forces ever by Israel for an operation that is not a war.

The first ring, made up of small units of 17 soldiers and police, will be responsible for evacuating individual homes.

The second ring, comprised of soldiers, will be responsible for securing the access roads to the settlements, to ensure opponents of the pull-out do not manage to disrupt the evacuation.

The third ring will have to secure a broader area around the settlements to protect against possible attacks by Palestinian militants.

The fourth ring - also known as the offensive ring - will be brought into action in the event of Palestinian militants firing rockets or mortars at the evacuating forces and the settlers during the withdrawal.

These troops will then move into Palestinian towns from where the rockets are being fired, take control of them, and set up five-kilometre buffer zones in an effort to keep the missiles out of range. In the event of rocket fire, officers say, they might suspend the evacuation for 24-36 hours while troops operate in Palestinian areas.

The fifth ring of troops and police will deploy along the border between Gaza and Israel and will be responsible for keeping opponents of the pull-out from getting into the Strip. The sixth and final ring will be deployed north of Gaza to ensure protesters don't manage to reach the area in an effort to stymie the pull-out.

Special units have also been created to contend with extreme situations, such as settlers who have barricaded themselves in a home with gas balloons and are threatening to blow themselves up.

The army is also preparing for the extreme scenario in which shots are fired at troops by evacuees.

On paper, the plan looks simple. But the implementation will be highly complex: the army has to evacuate thousands of people from their homes, none of whom want to leave, will face varying degrees of resistance from pull-out opponents, and might have to deal with attacks by Palestinian militants.

Finally, the entire movement of troops, military vehicles and evacuees has to take place along a single main road, which leads to the main settlement bloc in Gaza, and which is located just a few hundred metres from Palestinian homes.