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Israel to shorten evacuation timetable
Updated: 2005-02-25 22:14

JERUSALEM - Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has ordered defense officials to drastically cut the timetable for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank this summer in an effort to hinder Jewish extremists bent on disrupting the pullout, security officials said.

Military officials were worried that opponents of the pullout might use force to resist evacuation. Mofaz told defense officials Thursday night that the planned eight-week evacuation would give the plan's opponents too much time to disrupt it and to recruit reinforcements, security officials said.

The government originally planned a 12-week pullout but shortened it to eight weeks recently. In response to Mofaz's orders, the timetable could now be cut to four weeks, security officials said.

Thousands of religious Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday night to protest the pullout plan, comparing the evacuation of 9,000 settlers to the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews were killed.

Opposition to the pullout has grown more strident in recent weeks, with some opponents sending threatening letters to government leaders, blocking major Israeli roads with burning tires and calling Israeli security forces Nazis.

Participants at the rally Thursday held balloons inscribed: "In each settlement there are more arms, ammunition and weapons-trained men than there were in the Warsaw ghetto," implying that settlers should emulate Jews who rose up against the Nazis during World War II.

Some rabbis at the rally praised soldiers who refuse to cooperate with the withdrawal.

In another move designed to thwart the withdrawal, a Jewish seminary based in the militant settlement of Kiryat Arba has announced plans to relocate soon to the West Bank settlement of Sa Nur, which is slated for evacuation, the Haaretz newspaper reported Friday. The tactic is intended to force security officials to make the difficult decision to tear down a religious building.

Even as Israel prepares to withdraw from some parts claimed by Palestinians for a future state, it is planning to build 6,391 new homes in other areas of the West Bank this year and to legitimize some 120 unauthorized Jewish outposts in the area, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported Friday, citing the Israel Land Administration's 2005 working plan.

A spokeswoman for the Land Authority declined to discuss the report.

Under the plan, Maaleh Adumim, a settlement of 30,000 people outside Jerusalem, would be expanded by 2,100 housing units, the newspaper reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly said Israel planned to retain major West Bank settlement blocs in any peace agreement with the Palestinians. He has touted his withdrawal plan as a way to strengthen its hold on those settlements.

After approving the pullout plan Sunday, the Cabinet authorized a revised route for the West Bank separation barrier, which would include Maaleh Adumim and other large settlements on the Israeli side.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the planned settlement expansion and called on President Bush to personally intervene "to make sure that the Israeli government implements his recent call for a total cessation of settlement activities."

Meanwhile, Palestinian police sealed off 12 arms-smuggling tunnels running under the border between Gaza and Egypt, Israeli security sources said. Israeli officials have repeatedly demanded Palestinian forces take action against cross-border smuggling and expressed satisfaction with the new efforts.

A Palestinian crackdown on arms smuggling could help persuade Israel to withdraw from the volatile Philadelphi route along the border as part of the Gaza pullout. Israeli officials have expressed fears that militants would use the tunnels to smuggle advanced weapons into Gaza for use against Israel after the pullout.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday, a new Palestinian Cabinet dominated by professional appointments took office, replacing a previous government accused of corruption.

The Cabinet revolution was brought about by parliamentary insistence on a clean sweep of politicians associated with Yasser Arafat's corruption-tainted regime and signaled that the Palestinian Authority was preparing for a new era.

Since taking office last month, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has called for reforms in the Palestinian government and agreed to a cease-fire with Israel. In response to the truce, Jordan and Egypt agreed to send back their ambassadors to Israel, who were pulled from the country following the outbreak of violence in September 2000.

In another sign of warming regional ties, Sharon accepted an invitation by Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to attend an information technology conference in November, which would mark the first visit by an Israeli leader to the Arab nation, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Despite the reduced violence, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian who broke through the security fence surrounding Gaza on Thursday night, the military said.

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