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Israel Ponders Early Gaza Withdrawal


Israeli officials say the government is considering an early withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, following three days of mass anti-disengagement protests that tied up thousands of security forces. The prospect of an early withdrawal could well be discussed with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in the area Thursday, for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he would support a decision to move up the timetable for the Gaza disengagement.

Mr. Olmert told Israel Radio such a move might be wise, in light of recent protest rallies, which have tied up security forces, sapped their energy and created obstacles in the daily lives of all citizens.

Opponents of the withdrawal have staged a variety of protests, from blocking roads and thoroughfares and handing out orange colored ribbons to motorists to this week's mass rally when an estimated 20,000 protesters walked toward Gaza - hoping to reach the settlement block of Gush Katif and prevent its dismantling. An equal number of security forces was mobilized to stop the march. Demonstrators and police faced off for three days at Kfar Maimon, in southern Israel, before the protest fizzled and most of the demonstrators returned home.

By Thursday morning, a few hundred die-hard protesters remained at the site. Police also arrested 250 disengagement opponents, Wednesday night, for trying to enter the Gaza Strip to get to Gush Katif. The dismantling of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the northern West Bank was initially to begin in mid July, but was then postponed so it would not coincide with a traditional Jewish mourning period. The new date was set for mid August.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Thursday the Palestinians have made their preparations and are ready to take over - whenever Israel pulls out.

Speaking in Ramallah, Mr. Qureia said the problem is that the Palestinians are having to guess at Israeli plans because of the lack of coordination.

The disengagement issue tops the agenda for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She holds talks with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders and the main aim of her visit is to ensure that the disengagement stays on track.

Ms. Rice cut short her trip to Africa to come here - a decision made last week amid rising Israeli-Palestinian violence, as well as fighting between Palestinian security forces and Hamas militants in Gaza.

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