JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister, undaunted by growing resistance within the ruling party to a planned pullout from the Gaza Strip (search), said Tuesday that the army's blueprint for the withdrawal will be ready next month.
Gaza settlers charged that the government is already preparing to throw them out of their homes.
Also Tuesday, Israel's attorney general urged the government to consider adopting an international convention governing the treatment of residents in occupied lands. This showed increased Israeli sensitivity to international criticism, particularly in the aftermath of a world court ruling against its contentious West Bank separation barrier (search).
The barrier and the Gaza withdrawal are hallmarks of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) "disengagement" plan, which he says is meant to reduce friction between Israel and the Palestinians.
Sharon hopes to carry out the Gaza pullout next year, but it has sparked an internal uprising by hard-liners within his Likud Party.
The resistance has raised questions over whether Sharon can carry out the withdrawal without his government collapsing. Hard-line opposition has already cost Sharon his parliamentary majority, leaving him somewhat vulnerable to no-confidence votes.
Sharon insists he is going ahead, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking after a visit to an army base in northern Israel, said Tuesday that planning for the pullout was progressing.
"The main points of the policy have already been decided," he said. "We plan to complete our plans in September.
Sharon has said Israel will uproot all 21 settlements in Gaza as well as four isolated enclaves in the West Bank. About 8,000 Jewish settlers live in Gaza among 1.3 million Palestinians.
Mofaz said the military's preparations include the possibility of resistance from the settlers. "I hope we will not see extreme steps against Israeli soldiers and Israeli police," he said.
Settler representatives have harshly criticized the plan. Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gaza settlers, accused the army of sending in soldiers to the Neve Dekalim settlement Tuesday to prepare for the pullout.
"The soldiers wandered around the homes and recorded different facts," Sternberg said, claiming they even counted the numbers of flower pots in individual homes.
The army said the soldiers were conducting a routine exercise unrelated to the withdrawal.
Attorney General Meni Mazuz recommended the government seriously consider adopting the Fourth Geneva Convention, a set of international legal guidelines governing the treatment of occupied peoples, a statement from his office said.
The recommendation comes in the wake of a scathing ruling last month by the International Court of Justice, which called the barrier between built to separate Israelis from Palestinian areas a violation of international law and urged Israel to tear it down. Mazuz has ordered his advisers to assess the court decision.
Although the ruling — and a U.N. General Assembly resolution backing it — were nonbinding, the matter has raised concerns in Israeli legal and political circles.
"In terms of general public opinion, world public opinion, it does have ramifications. That's why it's so ominous," conceded a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The 1949 convention lays out the responsibilities of an occupying power in treating the local population. It is meant to protect occupied peoples from harm and guarantee them access to education, health care and other services.
It also forbids occupying powers from "transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies" — a stipulation that could have negative implications for Israeli settlements.
On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized Sharon's approval last week of a plan to build new housing in four West Bank settlements that the government insists will remain part of Israel under any peace settlement with the Palestinians. Annan called it a violation of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.
Since capturing the West Banka and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast War, Israel has said the convention doesn't apply to the West Bank because the region doesn't belong to another country, and it insists the dispute with the Palestinians be decided through negotiations.
The Israeli official said the country would not change this position.
Israel says it needs the security barrier to prevent suicide bombers from reaching its towns and villages. Hundreds of Israelis have been killed and wounded by bombings during four years of conflict, and the government says the one-quarter of the barrier already in place has stopped many suicide attacks.
Palestinians say the planned 425-mile barrier is an illegal seizure of their land.
Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the route modified to create less hardship on Palestinians. Since that ruling, the government has altered the route by moving some planned sections much closer to the 1967 cease-fire line.
In violence Tuesday, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli gunfire in southern Gaza, Palestinians said. The military said soldiers opened fire on Palestinians planting a bomb.
In a refugee camp next to the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops rounded up hundreds of men, held them for several hours and took some for questioning. Palestinians charged that soldiers damaged property while searching houses, and a woman said soldiers stole her jewelry. The military said no complaint was filed and officers said they knew nothing of a theft.