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45,000 soldiers, police to evacuate 9,000 Gaza settlers
JERUSALEM -- Israel plans to send 45,000 troops to evacuate 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of test Bank, Israel's defense minister said Tuesday -- a massive deployment that reflects concern some resistance to the pullout might be violent.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted Tuesday that opposition will not stop the operation. Many settlers are expected to offer passive resistance, but security officials have issued repeated assessments that militant settlers or their backers from outside Gaza might open fire.
The main settlers' council called on its followers to descend on Gaza on July 18, a month before the pullout begins. "Tens of thousands will march to Gush Katif [the main Gaza settlement bloc] to cancel the uprooting program, while avoiding violence and disruption of the lives of the country's citizens," the statement said.
The military is expected to declare Gaza off limits to nonresidents before the pullout.
Security officials said the forces will be arrayed in six circles around Gaza. Police in the innermost circle, reinforced by soldiers, will remove the settlers, while the other circles provide security to prevent Palestinian attacks or infiltration by Israeli opponents of the pullout.
Soldiers demonstrated their potential for swift evacuation last week when, in less than half an hour, they emptied out a Gaza settler hotel where more than 100 extremists and their families had barricaded themselves.
Sharon toured a site in southern Israel where new homes are being built for the Gaza settlers. "Disengagement will go ahead," he said, referring to the pullout, "and nobody can hinder it, because this thing is important for Israel, very important for Israel."
Extremists have already tried to disrupt life around the country by blocking highways and threaten to step up their efforts during the pullout, in hopes of diverting troops.
Attorney General Meni Mazuz said some 1,000 protesters had been arrested -- "not just people who were waving flags, but people who had full gas canisters and were planning to blow them up" on a main highway during rush hour.
"This is not legitimate resistance in a democracy or any country," Mazuz said.
Sharon said he instructed security forces "not to allow the blocking of roads, damage to communications structures, scattering of nails (on the roads) ... The instruction is unequivocal, not to disrupt life. We shall not allow it."
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz outlined the planned deployment at a stormy session of lawmakers, settlers and ministry officials. "About 41,000 male and female soldiers will take part in the evacuation, and 3,800 police," he said.
Sharon told the committee Israel has made it clear to the Palestinian Authority that it would respond harshly to Palestinian attacks during the pullout.
"If there is fire during the evacuation, our response will be very harsh, possibly so harsh that it would destroy the whole process," he said.
On Tuesday, Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef met Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Harel, chief of Israeli military planning, to discuss coordinating the withdrawal, the military said.
First fruits of coordination are already being felt, according to the chief of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash. Lawmaker Ran Cohen quoted him as saying several Palestinian attempts to smuggle arms into Gaza from Egypt have been foiled in the last two months because of the cooperation.