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Israeli Troops Practice Removing Settlers

July 26, 2005

ZEELIM MILITARY BASE, Israel (AP) _ Israeli troops practiced the forcible removal of Jewish settlers from their homes Tuesday in the largest dress rehearsal yet for next month’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The training ground, at a desert military base, was a mock Arab village initially built to train Israeli security forces in urban warfare against Palestinian militants.

Some of the 5,000 or so police and soldiers played the role of settlers who were carried out of homes, each by a team of four. The ``settlers″ were put on a bus parked nearby, while other troops formed a cordon around houses being evacuated to prevent protesters from slipping back in.

When the real task arrives, now scheduled to begin Aug. 17, about 50,000 police and soldiers removal 9,000 settlers from Gaza and four small settlements in the northern West Bank, commanders said Tuesday.

Security forces will be deployed in several circles, with about 14,000 police and soldiers directly involved in the removal of settlers and the remainder protecting the front line forces from possible Palestinian fire.

Each settler family will be evacuated by a 17-member force, the police commander of the operation, Haggai Dotan, said at the start of Tuesday’s drill. ``We will come early in the mornings to introduce ourselves, not say why we are there, but rather how we are going to carry out the evacuation,″ he said.

Army spokeswoman Yael Hartmann said the troops removing the settlers will not carry guns but will have non-lethal weapons such as water cannons. It remains unclear whether settlers will voluntarily hand over their weapons, many of them army-issue, before the withdrawal, or whether they will be disarmed by the security forces. Each unit will have several female officers to remove settler women, many of whom are religious and observe a strict separation of the sexes.

Settlers who climb onto rooftops to evade the security forces will be dragged into containers dangling from cranes, military officials said. Once a house has been emptied, the settlers’ belongings will be packed into boxes and removed by private companies.

``This is very sensitive for us, and a very different mission from what we have previously trained for,″ said Maj. Gen. Yiftah Rontal, the commander of the army’s ground forces.

Settler leaders initially said there would be large-scale resistance to the withdrawal. However, government officials have said nearly half of the settler families have in the meantime sought compensation, suggesting a growing number would leave voluntarily.

``We estimate that most of the population will leave″ voluntarily, said Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who watched Tuesday’s drill.

Security officials are most concerned about hundreds of withdrawal opponents, including extremists, who have sneaked into the Gaza Strip recently to reinforce the settlers. Settler leaders were quoted Tuesday as saying they would stage protest marches in Israel next week to tie up security forces.

In other developments Tuesday:

_ Jerusalem planning authorities have authorized construction of a Jewish neighborhood in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, a plan liable to inflame tensions with the Palestinians, the Maariv newspaper reported.

_ The Palestinian Authority has set dates for final rounds of local elections that are being watched as a barometer of the rising power of Hamas militants and the decline of the ruling Fatah party.

_ Gesher, a group devoted to dialogue between religious and secular Jews in Israel, has set up a hot line for callers interested in discussing the Gaza pullout. The withdrawal plan has created a rift in Israel society, and has provoked fears that some opponents will turn to violence to try to derail it.

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