Israel's military chief has warned soldiers will respond to any provocations during the controversial withdrawal of Jewish settlements, regardless of whether they come from Palestinian militants or Jewish extremists. It is the first time a senior Israeli official has directly addressed one of the most sensitive issues in the disengagement plan.
Israel's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, made it clear he would not allow soldiers' lives to be put at risk if opponents of the withdrawal fire on them. He said if it comes to that, he will not allow Israeli soldiers, as he put it, to be like ducks in a shooting gallery.
Until now there has been no official comment on what the military's rules of engagement might be for the withdrawals. General Halutz said that the soldiers assigned to carry out the evacuation of Jewish settlers in Gaza and four smaller settlements in the West Bank will not be armed. Armed troops will, however, be stationed to provide them protection from any armed opposition.
The military chief also warned that Israeli forces will not tolerate terrorist attacks during the withdrawal and will respond should they occur.
"Disengagement and terror will not go together," said General Halutz. "That will have to stop terror first - and then to disengage and that's what we are going to do if they're going to terrorize us."
The general said Israel is working with the Palestinian Authority to coordinate security in preparation for the withdrawal from the Jewish settlements. "I want to believe that the process of coordinating the disengagement with the Palestinians will enable us to do it without terror," said General Halutz. "If not, that's their choice."
The two sides have already met on the issue to lay the groundwork for the meeting scheduled next week between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Further discussions among Palestinian, Israeli and Egyptian officials are to be held in the next few days. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit the region at the end of the week.