Vol. 5 Num 289 Sun. March 20, 2005  

Preparations for Israel's Gaza pullout gather pace

Preparations quickened yesterday for Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip as a Palestinian militant splinter group ended its informal truce, the first small chink in the fragile demilitarisation of the four-year-old uprising.

The Israeli army is to begin pulling non-essential equipment out of Gaza within the next two weeks, in preparation for its withdrawal, a military source said.

He said the equipment that would be moved out initially would not be essential to the security of either troops or Jewish settlers in Gaza.

The army also started work Tuesday building bases in southern Israel to house the troops that are to redeploy by the end of the year, the source said.

The pullout of settlers is due to start on July 20 and be completed within a few weeks.

On Thursday, the army issued an order barring settlers from moving into Gaza.

"The head of the southern command, Lieutenant General Dan Harel, signed a decree on March 17 prohibiting the relocation of Israeli citizens into the Gaza Strip," an army statement said.

The Yediot Aharonot daily reported Friday that the decision was taken by Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz after reports that hundreds of people had moved to Gaza settlements in a bid to prevent their evacuation.

Figures collated by the army showed that more than 500 people have recently changed their address to the Gush Katif settlement bloc, although settler sources put the number of new residents as high as 800, the paper said.

Jewish settlers are fiercely opposed to the Gaza pullout and are planning a campaign of civil disobedience in a bid to thwart what they deride as the "forcible transfer of Jews".

During the withdrawal period, the army is expected to declare a closed military zone in all the affected areas in order to prevent the widely expected protests.

Supporters of the withdrawal were due to take to the streets for the first time Saturday to demonstrate their approval of a move they regard as essential to Middle East peace.

Some 1,000 security personnel were deployed to police the evening rally in Tel Aviv.