NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip -- The Israeli military began removing shipping containers from a base in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the army's first concrete step toward a planned pullout this summer.
Also Wednesday, the Palestinian legislature took a key step toward calling parliamentary elections on July 17, giving preliminary approval to a new electoral law that calls for two-thirds of legislators to be chosen from districts and the other third by the whole electorate. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who favors postponing the election, disagrees with the system because he wants no districts.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, said peace negotiations with the Palestinians can begin if they carry out their obligations.
Speaking in the northern Israeli city of Hadera, Sharon said Israel would not compromise on any issue regarding its security.
"Perhaps we can begin a political process if the Palestinians do what they have to do," he said, referring to obligations under an internationally backed peace plan that Palestinians disarm militant groups.
In Gaza, preparations for a withdrawal got underway. A crane lifted the containers onto flatbed trucks, which drove out of the base of the Southern Brigade in the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, the largest in Gaza. In all, 30 containers containing furniture, computers, weapons and uniforms were to be removed Wednesday, the army said, though the base will not be completely dismantled until the end of the withdrawal.
Israel's government considered delaying the pullout by three weeks to Aug. 15 so it will not coincide with the annual period of mourning observant Jews mark for the destruction of the biblical Temples, leading up to the fast day of Tisha B'Av on Aug. 14. A decision is to be made by the end of the week.
Both Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz have sent mixed signals on whether they favor a delay.
Sharon on Wednesday was quoted as saying he expects Palestinians to loot Jewish settlements immediately after Israeli forces leave Gaza. U.S. officials have urged Israel and the Palestinians to coordinate the withdrawal, in part to ensure an orderly transfer of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza.
"Immediately after the Israeli army leaves there, everything will be looted," Sharon told senior Cabinet ministers on Tuesday, according to the Yediot Ahronot daily. The comments were confirmed by a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sharon's prediction would imply that he believes planning is futile, and that chaos would ensue in any event once Israeli troops pull out.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he believed looting was unlikely. "The Palestinians are preparing themselves and will make sure that the day after is smooth," he said.
Abbas complained in remarks published Wednesday that the Israeli government is inciting against him and that it has violated agreements reached at a summit in February.
It was Abbas' harshest public criticism of Sharon since the Palestinian leader took office three months ago. Sharon has accused Abbas of not doing enough to rein in Palestinian militants, and voiced his criticism of Abbas in a meeting with President Bush earlier this month.
In an interview with the Haaretz daily, Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, complained that Israel has not kept its promises.
He also said Israel is undercutting him with constant criticism. "Day and night, they are inciting against me in the Israeli media," Abbas told Haaretz. "I am not the complaining type, but despite the instructions we have issued to halt incitement on our side, Israeli officials have not stopped inciting for a moment."
When Abbas stepped down as prime minister in 2003, after only four months in office, he blamed Sharon in part for the failure of his government, saying Israel systematically undermined him. Israeli officials have since acknowledged they could have done more to boost Abbas' standing in 2003, including by releasing prisoners.
Abbas' ruling Fatah Party is now bracing for a beating at the polls by the Islamic Hamas, contesting parliamentary elections for the first time. Surveys show that many voters are fed up with Fatah because of inefficiency and corruption, as well as failure to improve Palestinian living conditions.
Abbas, who has said he is willing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with Israel, would favor a delay in the July 17 election. He reasons that if he waits until after the Israeli pullout, Fatah could claim that as an achievement and salvage the election.
However, Hamas insists the balloting be held on schedule and has even threatened to pull out of a cease-fire with Israel arranged by Abbas -- his most notable achievement since taking office in January -- if there is a delay.