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Jewish settlers prepare for withdrawal
Updated: 2005-02-17 21:29

Hundreds of Jewish settlers took first steps Thursday to eventually leave their homes in the Gaza Strip, a day after Israel's parliament approved $871 million in compensation for them, the final legislative hurdle for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan.

Many of the 9,000 settlers to be removed from their homes under the plan had strongly opposed the bill, hoping a defeat in parliament would scuttle the program to withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements. But the 59-40 vote for the compensation plan Wednesday persuaded many the withdrawal would proceed.

About 200 families are now preparing to file compensation claims, said Yosef Tamir, a lawyer representing those families.

"Now that the legislation is complete, the rights of the settlers need to be implemented, the timetable is short and we can't have a situation where they are left without homes but having not yet received their rightful dues," he told Israel Radio.

Mali Gross, a mother of four who lives in the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai, said she had been waiting for the bill to pass before preparing her children and herself to starting a new life in a neighborhood in the nearby city of Ashkelon.

"The hardest part is to really know when to pack our bags. I would like to put it off for as long as legally possible, when they tell us when we are to move," she told Army Radio.

Many other settlers, however, have refused to accept the government's decision.

Settlers and their allies have plastered city walls and highway overpasses with signs condemning the pullout and warning of civil war. In recent days, they have blocked traffic with their bodies and burning tires at major intersections across the country.

Israeli Radio reported that police had beefed up security on a Jerusalem holy site known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Haram as-Sharif to Muslims, out of fear Jewish extremists might attack mosques on the compound to try to spark renewed conflict with Muslims that could destroy the disengagement plan.

Violence between Israel and the Palestinians has decreased drastically in recent days, following a truce declaration by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders last week.

In an effort to counter the settlers' campaign, former Jerusalem police chief Arieh Amit and a coalition of business leader has begun a campaign of its own under the slogan "We're behind you Sharon." The group has put up 400 large roadside posters and plans to distribute a million stickers in an effort to energize the majority who support the pullout plan, according to polls, Amit said.

"The problem is that most people want (the pull out) but sit at home and prefer to complain rather than take to the streets," he told Army Radio. "We hope that this campaign will persuade people to get out the house rather than leave the streets to the extreme right, a minority which makes so much noise."

Before the withdrawal can be carried out, Sharon still needs to win a series of votes in the Cabinet and needs to fight off efforts to bring down his government. A major obstacle is an upcoming vote on the 2005 state budget. Sharon does not have a majority in parliament for the spending plan, but needs to get the budget passed by the end of March. If he fails, his government will automatically fall, and elections must be held within three months.

Meanwhile, an army committee investigating Israel's policy of demolishing houses belonging to the families' of suicide bombers said the policy inflamed Palestinian hatred and should be stopped, military officials said.

Over the past four years of violence, Israeli soldiers using bulldozers and explosives have flattened 666 homes of families of Palestinian attackers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem. Human rights groups have condemned the demolition policy as collective punishment.

The government said the house demolitions were intended to deter future attacks, but the preliminary conclusions of a panel led by Maj. Gen. Udi Shani said the demolitions only increased Palestinian hostility toward Israel and should be halted.

Also Thursday, new U.S. security coordinator for the Middle East, Army Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, was holding meetings with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Sharon.

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