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Israel Prepared for Withdrawals from Gaza, West Bank

Starting next week, Israel will pull out of the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank, removing 9,000 Jewish settlers from their homes and bringing an end to nearly 40 years of residency. The move is being met with strong resistance by many Jewish settlers.

Beginning next Wednesday, Israel plans to uproot all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small enclaves in the West Bank. Military officials expect the Gaza withdrawal to last about three weeks, with the West Bank pull-out taking an additional week.

In the Peat Sedeh settlement of the Gaza Strip, Israeli settlers who have accepted the withdrawal plan are packing up their belongings. Many are literally stripping their homes of anything they can take with them to alternative housing, including kitchen cabinets and appliances.

However, many others plan to stay put. Residents of the Neve Dekalim settlement have already emptied grocery store shelves of bread and milk.

The withdrawals are eagerly anticipated by many Palestinians, especially by those living in a narrow section of the Gaza Strip. Arabs in the al-Mawasi region have been trapped in an area just 13-kilometers long, after Israel instituted travel restrictions in 2000.

The move forced 1600 Palestinian families into a settlement bloc with 6,000 Jewish residents and cut off those Palestinians from their relatives and jobs.

In southern Israel Thursday, soldiers pretending to be Israeli settlers confronted Israeli security forces, and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, as part of a mock drill.

Soldiers are also preparing for attacks by Palestinian militants. Mister Mofaz is confident Israeli forces are prepared for the tough task at hand, but hopes force is not necessary.

"I hope that most of the settlers in the area will leave by themselves in the 48 hours at the beginning of the disengagement plan," said the defense minister.

Israeli legal authorities are already preparing to bring charges against anyone who interferes with the pullout. A special courtroom has been set up inside a prison near Tel Aviv, to hold "fast track" trials for those arrested.