Historic exodus from Gaza Strip begins as 8,500 settlers move on

An elaborate 'six-ring' cordon of troops and police oversees evacuation of 1,500 Jewish homes and handover of land

The historic move will begin at midnight tonight when troops will close the main Kissufim road into Gush Katif, the largest settlement block in Gaza, and begin visiting all 1,500 homes with orders for the families living there to leave within 48 hours.

All those who remain past Wednesday morning will be forcibly evacuated in an operation which has divided the country's dominant political right and is the biggest gamble Ariel Sharon has taken since becoming Prime Minister more than four years ago.

The Gaza withdrawal is the first ever abandonment of settlements in Palestinian land established since 1967 and was ordered by Mr Sharon, the man who probably did more than any other politician to encourage settlement growth.

An estimated 2,700 pro-settler infiltrators have managed to get into Gush Katif, Gaza's largest settlement block in recent weeks despite military restrictions. Police sources have indicated they will show "zero tolerance" for infiltrators, some of whom are young hard-liners from the West Bank.

An elaborate concentric structure of police and troops has been established under five divisional command centres. The first "ring" will consist of police and troops charged with actual removal of the settlers from their homes. The second, of troops only, will seek to prevent anti-disengagement protesters reaching the settlements, as their leaders have threatened to try and do on Monday.

The third and fourth rings are intended to protect both troops and the departing settlers from any attacks by Palestinian militants in Gaza that may occur despite a series of assurances from most armed factions that they will not seek to disrupt the disengagement process. The fifth and sixth will provide general security and traffic control around Gaza.

While military preparations for the evacuation are complete, and have been tested in a series of complex exercises, unresolved issues remain over the mechanics of the handover to the Palestinians and the extent to which Gaza's stricken economy will be boosted and given access to export markets after the settlers depart.

In talks brokered by the former head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, Israel agreed to destroy the settlers' homes and synagogues while leaving most other public buildings in place for future use. The Palestinians expect to get international help with removing the rubble.

Mr Wolfensohn also secured on Friday a $14m (£8m) deal under which 75 per cent of the flourishing greenhouse businesses of settlers will passed to the Palestinians via an international fund.

The Palestinians are pressing Mr Sharon's government to use high-tech security scanners at the Karni crossing into Israel, to allow lorries carrying produce to pass through quickly instead of having to unload and reload on each side. The Palestinians have so far rejected Israeli plans to move the southern crossing point into Egypt, at least for goods, from the town of Rafah to Kerem Shalom, where the borders of Gaza, Egypt and Israel all meet. Israel wants still to oversee the crossing, to prevent the smuggling of weapons, cheap goods and possibly drugs from Egypt.

Mr Abbas, who has urged the factions to let disengagement pass smoothly, is likely to have to cope with a power struggle over control of the land vacated by the settlers once disengagement is complete, even though the Palestinian Authority has decreed that only Palestinian, and not factional, flags can be flown in celebration. There are fears that Hamas may try to seize tracts of the vacated territory to demonstrate that it can distribute it more fairly. Some international observers also believe that private claims to previously settler-controlled land may be greater than predicted. As little as half the land may be publicly owned.

Ismail Haniye, a top Hamas leader, told reporters in Gaza City yesterday that the group will not lay down their guns in response to the evacuation.

In a clear attempt to take some credit for the disengagement in the face of Hamas claims that it is a retreat, Mr Abbas told a Palestinian rally on Friday: "From here, from this place, our nation and our masses are walking toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

AFTER THE WITHDRAWAL

Where does it leave Israel and Palestine? Who will be evacuated from Gaza and when?

Around 8,500 Jewish settlers from 21 settlements, from the far north to the far south of the Gaza Strip, have been given until midnight tonight to leave of their own free will, and the government is hoping that some 60 per cent will have done just that. After two further days' grace, Israeli security forces will move in on Wednesday, settlement by settlement, to forcibly evacuate those who stay, in an operation that could take from one week to three weeks or even longer.

How long have the Israelis been there?

All the settlements post-date Israel's seizure of Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. They range in foundation from Morag and Netzarim in 1972 to Shirat Hayam, the militant coastal settlement which was founded in 2001. Neve Dekalim, the biggest settlement in Gaza, with 2,600 people, was established in 1983.

Where will they go?

A wide variety of towns and farming communities mainly on the Israeli side of the pre-1967 "green line" between Israel and the West Bank, from Galilee in the north to the Negev Desert in the south. Some will have temporary accommodation in "caravillas" or in kibbutzes while they await permanent homes. Up to 1,000 people have been allotted a mix of temporary and permanent accommodation near the coastal beauty spot of Nitzanim, to the fury of Israeli greens.

Who will enforce the Israelis' removal and ensure it is permanent?

The removal, led and run by the Israeli army but with police initially in the front line, will use 60,000 security force members to carry out the evacuation - the largest ever military operation outside of war. As for ensuring it is permanent, the fact that the army will not longer be there to protect the settlers from Palestinian militants is likely to ensure that.

What is the Palestinian leadership's reaction to the evacuation?

Grudging to apathetic at first, compounded by Ariel Sharon's determination to make clear it is a unilateral and not a negotiated step. But under President Mahmoud Abbas, it has become more positive as it tries with still very limited success to ensure open borders to aid exports to help Gaza's stricken economy. In an upbeat speech this week, Mr Abbas said it was a first step towards a Palestinian state.

Where does this leave the peace process?

In theory it could be the first step towards a return to the internationally agreed roadmap to peace. But Israel is imposing tough conditions about Mr Abbas disabling the armed factions. And looming elections in both Israel and the Palestinian Legislative Council could cause further impediments. A lot depends on whether the US, which has been more "hands-on" here in President Bush's second term, are ready to inject some momentum into the process.

Comments