Security forces deployed to enforce pull-out

 

PALESTINE: Israeli and Palestinian forces have been deployed in large numbers to ensure calm during Israel's evacuation of Jewish settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip which gets under way this week.

Settler leaders expect that up to half of Gaza's 8,000 settlers will leave voluntarily in the next two days, with those remaining facing eviction by some 42,000 unarmed police and soldiers starting on Wednesday.

Settlers refusing to leave say they will lock entry gates of their enclaves to soldiers who are due to visit homes early today urging inhabitants to go voluntarily in the coming 48 hours.

Gaza settler council chairman Avner Shimoni declined to confirm that enclave gates would be blocked by residents today.

"We definitely won't make it easy for those coming to expel us," he told Israel Radio.

"If you ask me, 50 to 60 per cent of us will remain and the rest will leave (before Wednesday)."

Israeli police went on highest alert yesterday, sealing off the entrance to the Strip's settlements at midnight and erecting roadblocks to prevent more opponents of the pull-out plan from entering the area.

Israeli and Palestinian officials opened a joint operations centre on the Gaza border to help them respond rapidly to any violence, according to a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, Tawfiq Abu Khoussa.

In a co-ordinated gesture of support for the withdrawal, some 7,500 Palestinian security men in Gaza began moving into position on the outskirts of the fortified settlements over the weekend to ward off possible efforts by Palestinian militants to launch rocket attacks at departing settlers.

The security officers are also supposed to prevent Palestinians from infiltrating empty settlements to loot and seize property.

There was a moderate flow of settlers departing Gush Katif yesterday, with many residents packing their belongings into trailers or large steel freight containers.

Opinion polls show that most Israelis support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's move to evacuate all of Gaza's 21 settlements, as well as four in the West Bank, part of a planned "disengagement".

Maj Gen Dan Harel, Israeli commander for the Gaza region, said up to 4,000 opponents of the pull-out had got into the settlements by overstaying visitor permits, hiding in car trunks or using other false pretences to outwit border controls.

"They won't prevent the army and police from carrying out the decisions of the cabinet and parliament.

"They will make it more colourful, I hope not more violent," he said.

The army aims to have the settlers out by September 4th. The pull-out is the first evacuation of settlements from land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians want for a state.

Palestinians welcome any withdrawal from occupied land, but fear the move is a smokescreen to cement Israel's hold on most of the West Bank, where 230,000 settlers live, denying its 2.3 million Palestinians a state of viable size.