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Israel to Shorten Gaza Pullout Timetable

Israel's defense minister ordered security officials to speed up the timetable for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip (search) and four West Bank settlements this summer, hoping the accelerated schedule will impede efforts by Jewish extremists to disrupt the pullout, officials said Friday.

With opposition growing increasingly heated, police opened an investigation Friday into possible incitement by protesters who compared the planned evacuation to the Holocaust during a rally in Jerusalem.

Military officials have expressed concerns that opponents of the pullout might use force to resist the evacuations. At a meeting Thursday night, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told defense officials the planned eight-week evacuation would give opponents too much time to disrupt it, security officials said.

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

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) has pushed forward with his plan, opposition by Jewish settlers and their sympathizers has grown more strident. In recent weeks, opponents have sent threatening letters to government leaders, blocked major Israeli roads with burning tires and called Israeli security forces Nazis.

Sharon last week received the final parliamentary approval needed for the withdrawal. Although additional hurdles remain — Sharon must pass a budget by March 31 or face new elections — authorities fear extremist opponents of the withdrawal could turn violent as they run out of options.

The threat of violence is an especially serious concern after an ultranationalist Jew opposed to peace concessions assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) in 1995.

Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said Friday that authorities decided to investigate possible incitement at an anti-withdrawal rally in Jerusalem. Thousands of religious Jews attended Thursday night's protest, where some participants held balloons comparing the plan to uproot 9,000 Jewish settlers to the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

The inscriptions on the balloons said, "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. Some rabbis at the rally praised soldiers who refuse to cooperate with the withdrawal.

Sharon has said the unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank will improve Israeli security. He says there is no future for the 8,200 settlers in Gaza, who live in tightly guarded enclaves surrounded by some 1.3 million Palestinians.

At the same time, Sharon has repeatedly said Israel would need to retain major West Bank settlement blocs in a final agreement with the Palestinians. He has touted his withdrawal plan as a way to strengthen Israel's hold on those settlements, winning tacit U.S. approval for his position.

The Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper reported Friday that Israel is planning to build 6,391 new homes in parts of the West Bank it plans to retain and will legitimize some 120 unauthorized Jewish outposts in the area.

The report cited the Israel Land Administration's 2005 working plan. A spokeswoman for the administration declined to comment.

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."

The Palestinians claim all of Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War — for a future state.

Despite the spat, cooperation continued to improve between Israel and the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

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

Israeli officials fear that militants would use the tunnels to smuggle advanced weapons into Gaza for use against Israel after the Gaza pullout.