Further pullouts possible
Sharon says Israel may relinquish other West Bank settlements

National State of Emergency slated to go into effect Sunday, 8/14/2005

National Post

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Matthew Fisher
CanWest News Service

JERUSALEM - As Israelis braced for a national state of emergency slated to go into effect tomorrow, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested for the first time yesterday that Israel's controversial withdrawal of 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and four remote West Bank settlements next week may be followed by further pullouts from the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon's remarks to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper are sure to further infuriate many religious Israelis who bitterly oppose the current pullout plan.

In the interview published yesterday, Mr. Sharon suggested Israel could eventually relinquish some of the 120 West Bank Jewish settlements that will remain.

The possibility of further evacuations was first floated several days ago by Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mr. Sharon's closest political ally and fellow Likud party member.

Both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Olmert have emphasized several times recently that Israel intends to hold on to many large settlement blocs in the West Bank, where a majority of the remaining 230,000 settlers live. They have also said Israeli control over Jerusalem is not negotiable.

The current withdrawal plan, which has been approved several times by Mr. Sharon's fragile coalition government, is to be set in motion at dawn on Monday, when security forces will visit all 25 settlements -- 21 in Gaza, four in the West Bank -- to be evacuated.

Eviction notices will be served at every home, along with offers of help to any family that wishes to pack up and leave before Tuesday night. After that the settlers will be deemed to be illegally inside Gaza and the four West Bank settlements.

On Wednesday at dawn, as many as 400 teams, each comprised of 17 soldiers and police, will enter the settlements. Although under orders to be as compassionate and humane as possible, they have been authorized to physically remove settlers who refuse to leave.

Any settlers who stay on past Sunday night risk losing a third of compensation packages worth as much as US$450,000.

Many of the 55,000 police and soldiers already deployed for what is Israel's largest peacetime security operation began yesterday to establish several additional rings of security outside Gaza. These buffer zones are intended to prevent protesters from getting near military vehicles that will be moving into and out of the main settlement area of Gush Katif along a narrow, easily blocked road.

Other security forces are to be sent into Gush Katif to chase after what officials estimate are as many as 3,000 mostly young infiltrators who have vowed to try to block the eviction of the settlers.

Heavily armoured combat units and attack helicopters and aircraft are on standby to respond to any attempt by Gazan Palestinians to disrupt the withdrawal with sniper fire and homemade rockets and mortars. At the same, several thousand Palestinian police are to patrol the 80% of Gaza where about 1.3 million Palestinians live.

As well as watching out for Palestinian attacks, Israeli security forces are on high alert to prevent Jewish extremists from trying to stop or delay the pullout, either directly or by attacking such targets as Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is Islam's third most sacred site.

The religious Jews who oppose the withdrawal believe the land being given up is a sacred gift to the Jewish people from God.

In another sign that the end of the Gaza settlements is fast approaching, about 200 greenhouse farmers agreed yesterday to accept US$14.5-million in compensation. The farms, which employ about 4,000 Palestinians, are to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli officials estimate at least half of the 1,800 families to be evacuated will leave without causing problems of any kind.