JERUSALEM – Israel will encourage Jewish settlers in Gaza to start leaving their homes in exchange for compensation in August — months before a Cabinet vote to approve evacuation of the settlements, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press.
The government timetable, presented Wednesday to the committee overseeing the pullout, calls for completion of the process by Sept. 30, 2005, three months ahead of the original target date.
It also calls for the forced evacuation of settlers who refuse to leave their homes by Sept. 1.
The faster pace underscored the determination of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) to push through his plan, despite stiff opposition from settlers and Cabinet ministers who claim the pullout would reward Palestinian violence.
Sharon says the pullout will improve Israel's security in the absence of a serious Palestinian negotiating partner. He has largely cut out the Palestinians from the preparations and instead turned to Egypt, which borders Gaza, to help guarantee security in the area after a pullout.
"Israel made a decision this week crucial to its future, a decision on the disengagement plan that will be completed by the end of 2005," Sharon said Wednesday.
The Palestinians have expressed lukewarm support for the withdrawal plan, but insist that it be the first step of a negotiated settlement leading to an independent state including the entire West Bank.
A Cabinet vote earlier this week approving the plan prompted two hard-line ministers to resign from the government, depriving Sharon of his parliamentary majority.
A senior government official said Wednesday the prime minister would "sooner or later" invite the opposition Labor Party (search) into his governing coalition. The party already is blocking efforts to topple Sharon.
To win over Cabinet opponents, Sharon agreed to hold separate votes before each of the four planned stages of evacuation. The release of the timetable, however, signaled that Sharon wants settlers to leave well before then.
According to the plan, 21 settlements in Gaza and four isolated enclaves in the West Bank would be evacuated by Sept. 15, 2005. The army would pull out of Gaza by the end of that month.
The process would begin in August with voluntary exit by settlers. Still to be worked out is compensation for the settlers and figuring out where to relocate them.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (search) said Thursday that the government has agreed to offer advance payments to settlers willing to leave.
Speaking on Israel Radio, Netanyahu declined to say how much money was being offered, adding that a final decision on total compensation is months away.
"We will see what happens in the next eight or nine months, and then the Cabinet will meet and we will decide what to do," he said.
The release of the timetable put new pressure on Sharon's coalition. Members of the pro-settler National Religious Party, which opposes the pullout but remains part of the government, threatened to resign if any evacuations already are planned.
"This is very grave and goes against everything that was agreed on," said Nissan Slomiansky, an NRP lawmaker.
The document said last weekend's Cabinet vote imposed an immediate freeze on all new development in the settlements and denies compensation to any Israeli who now moves into Gaza.
Some 7,500 Jewish settlers live in Gaza. Many of them are ideologically committed to keeping the land and are unlikely to leave voluntarily.
"Everyone who thinks that they will buy us with money is going to have a very big surprise," said Yigal Kirshenzaft, who lives in the Neve Dekalim settlement. "When they come to remove us, they will be surprised at the strong resistance."
However, Shimon Damari, a resident of Nissanit in northern Gaza, said many of his neighbors will be willing to leave — if the price is right.
"There is definitely room for the government to turn to us and decide what they are giving," he told Army Radio.
The Cabinet approved in principle the withdrawal plan on Sunday, the first time Israel has decided to remove settlements from the West Bank or Gaza.
On Wednesday, the committee overseeing the pullout held its first meeting, setting the timetable. Participants said the schedule could change.
The government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Gaza withdrawal is a "pilot of a much broader notion to think about reshaping the region unilaterally."
Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, told the Jerusalem Post that Israel might cede six Arab neighborhoods in the city.
"Jerusalem is dear to me, but one must not lose sight of proportions over peripheral areas we do not need," said Olmert, who opposed any division of the city when he was mayor.
Such a stance would mark a dramatic policy shift by Israel, which captured the Arab neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city in 1967 and considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital. Officials in Sharon's office were quoted as saying Olmert's comments were only a "trial balloon."
The timetable sets an October target for reaching an arrangement with international organizations like the World Bank to take over property evacuated by Israel.
In Washington, Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval said settlement houses would be destroyed, but public buildings would remain.
The timetable orders the military to begin preparing for the withdrawal next month and to pull out troops during the last two weeks of September 2005.
In new violence Thursday, a militant from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade (search) was killed in an exchange of fire overnight with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Jenin, Palestinian security officials said. The group is loosely linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.
In Gaza, a Hamas militant was killed Wednesday as Israeli troops moved into Palestinian areas, surrounded a house and flattened farmland, Palestinian officials said. The military said soldiers fired after an anti-tank missile was fired at them.