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Israel Set for Historic Withdrawal from Gaza

Israel's withdrawal of all 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four small ones from the West Bank gets under way on Monday.

Fifty five thousand Israeli soldiers and police are at the ready to evacuate and relocate some 8,500 Jewish settlers from their homes in Gaza and the northern West Bank.

A huge military camp has been set up in southern Israel near the Gaza border. Temporary housing has also been set up for the evacuated settler families.

The initial phase of the withdrawal gets under way Monday morning with teams of unarmed police and soldiers going door to door to tell settler families they have until Wednesday to leave voluntarily or they will be forcibly removed.

Israeli officials say they want to avoid what they describe as nightmare scenarios: scenes of women and children dragged screaming from their homes, or clashes with rightwing extremists opposed to the pullout.

Israel's Vice Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, a key proponent of the disengagement plan, says while the pullout will be painful it is important. He calls it an event of historic significance that marks a major change for the Jewish people and their relationship to the land of Israel.

"For us to decide to voluntarily pull out from settlements, in areas that are claimed by some to be part of the historic land of Israel, is not a minor political gesture," he noted. "This is a dramatic and fundamental move the like[s] of which have not been done since the beginning of the Zionist movement."

Just how dramatic the move is can be gauged by the vehement resistance by settlers and their religious and nationalistic supporters. Helene Finkelstein came from Jerusalem to the southern Gaza settlements to support the people there.

"These are God-fearing people," she said. "They're here doing what God wants of the Jewish people - to settle the land. And, I don't believe they're going to be destroyed and have their homes taken away from them."

Mrs. Finkelstein says if soldiers come and tell her to leave she will do so, but she and many others are hoping for "divine intervention" to save the settlements.

Many, however, have already left and others are packing up, ready to go when the police arrive.

Security forces will be deployed in circles around the settlements. Outer rings will guard against possible attacks by Palestinian militants and also block Jewish protesters from infiltrating into the evacuation areas. The inner rings will provide additional security and have the responsibility of removing the settlers and their belongings.

The authorities say they hope to complete the evacuation within a few weeks, then knock down the buildings and turn over the area to the Palestinians by early October.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the withdrawal plan in 2004 as a unilateral move by Israel to disengage from the Palestinians, arguing it's vital for Israel's security and long-term survival as a democratic Jewish state.

Ehud Olmert says it's also a historic moment for the Palestinians.

"I think for the first time there is a genuine chance for the Palestinian people living in Gaza to administer themselves without anyone interfering and with a very exciting wide-range coalition of institutions, individuals and government which are anxious to help them pull out from the difficulties, the constraints and disadvantages which were part of their lives for so many years," he said.

Palestinians welcome the Israeli withdrawal, and the authorities in Gaza have organized celebrations to mark the event. Militants say it was their continuous attacks that forced the Israelis to leave.

But, Palestinians remain wary of Israeli intentions, including continued Israeli restrictions on Gaza's economic life as well as the freedom of movement for people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank. They also fear that Israel is giving up the Gaza Strip only to consolidate its control over the West Bank, something Vice Prime Minister Olmert denies.