Israel is warning of harsh retaliation if it is attacked by Palestinians during the upcoming pullout from the Gaza Strip. In another development, the Israeli government expects half of the Gaza settlers will refuse to leave their homes voluntarily.
Israel is planning to launch a massive ground operation if Palestinian militants fire on Israeli soldiers and settlers during the Gaza pullout, which is due to begin in mid August.
"We would halt the evacuation of settlers for 10 days to two weeks and inflict a severe blow," said Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim. He said the army would send 12,000 to 15,000 troops to Palestinian towns near Jewish settlements in Gaza. The evacuation would resume once the army stops Palestinian fire.
The Palestinian Authority has promised to ensure a peaceful Israeli withdrawal, but Israel doubts that Palestinian forces are willing or able to control powerful Islamic militant groups led by Hamas. But Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat says his side is ready.
"We are determined to deliver, and to control, and to ensure that the 'disengagement' will take place in a smooth and peaceful atmosphere," he said.
Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, 21 Gaza settlements will be dismantled, and more than 8,000 Jews removed from their homes. Israeli officials say they expect about half of the settlers slated for evacuation will refuse to leave. One such settler, Rachel Sapperstein, told VOA that it is a duty to resist what she calls "ethnic cleansing."
"And it is a shameful thing on the part of the government of Israel to be doing this to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. It is a terrible, terrible shame," she said.
The settlers who refuse to leave have a lot to lose. They could forfeit tens of thousands of dollars in government compensation, and the army will remove them by force. But many settlers have vowed to resist until the bitter end.