Withdrawal of Gaza settlers may be brought forward

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The Independent Online

Ehud Olmert, Deputy Prime Minister and a strong supporter of disengagement from Gaza, suggested yesterday that he had warmed to the idea of starting the evacuation earlier than the planned time of mid-August to forestall further protests.

Dozens of buses arrived at the small farming community of Kfar Maimon yesterday to take home the majority of the demonstrators who had been surrounded by security forces for three nights.

The decision by settlers and their leaders to abandon a mass march to the entry to the main Gaza settlement of Gush Katif in the face of a huge deployment of security forces, was a defeat for the protesters.

But it was inflicted at the cost of tying up some 20,000 police and soldiers in the largest public order operation in Israel's history, and Mr Olmert told Israel Radio yesterday: "This confrontation saps a great deal of energy, disrupts all the lives of the country's residents [and] doesn't lead to any advantage."

Mr Olmert said he would "weigh favourably" the idea of an earlier withdrawal and added that if opponents of the pull-out "think these are appropriate days for protest ... I don't think the government has to act differently".

But other Israeli officials cast doubt on whether the disengagement plan would - or even practically could - be brought forward. One said it was "highly unlikely" and suggested it was possible that keeping the original date might allow the protests to "peak" before the evacuation took place.

Although it had originally been intended to evacuate the 8,500 settlers in July, the new date was decided as a means of mollifying religious leaders because it comes after Tisha Ba'Av, the traditional mourning period for the destruction of the Jewish temples.

There are also unresolved issues between Israel and the Palestinians over disengagement - not least the question of who is going to be responsible for removing the vast quantity of rubble that will be left and when the houses and other buildings will be restored.

This and the issue of whether Gaza's economy will be afforded access to outside markets are among a series of problems that will be discussed by both Israelis and Palestinians with Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, who arrived in Israel last night.

Meanwhile, military officials said yesterday that synagogues in the 21 Gaza settlements would be dynamited after disengagement rather than being razed with bulldozers, as the houses will be.

The Yesha Council, the umbrella body for West Bank settlers, said it would use small groups to infiltrate into the Strip, which was last week declared closed to non-resident Israelis. The army estimates that around 600 settlers and supporters from outside Gaza have infiltrated the settlements there since the closure. Most had come in the cars of Gaza settlers.