NITZAN, Israel – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) on Thursday toured a coastal strip in southern Israel (search) that has been proposed as possible site for the relocation of thousands of Jewish settlers after their evacuation from the Gaza Strip (search) this summer.
Some Gaza settlers have said that resistance to the withdrawal could crumble if the government moved their communities en masse to the Nitzanim area north of Gaza and gave them suitable farmland. But the proposal could also destroy one of Israel's last untouched stretches of desert dunes and has angered environmentalists.
The pullout from all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the northern West Bank was originally scheduled to take place over 12 weeks this summer, but Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told top government officials he wants to complete the evacuation in less than four weeks, and would use soldiers — in addition to police officers — in the dismantling of settlements.
Mofaz also said the Gaza Strip settlements will be completely sealed off during the withdrawal, to prevent opponents from entering the area to try to derail the pullout, participants in the meeting said.
A detailed pullout program presented to Sharon on Wednesday included plans for a wide security net around Gaza, and also dealt with issues like Jewish cemeteries and house pets, a senior Israel official said on condition of anonymity. The plan anticipated the "worst-case scenario" of resistance from settlers and violence by Palestinians during the withdrawal, the official said.
The plan is to be presented to the Cabinet in the next few weeks, the official said.
Israeli officials estimate the withdrawal will cost about US$1 billion, including US$230 million in compensation for the 9,000 settlers who will be moved from their homes. Many settlers have complained that the money is insufficient.
Earlier this week, Sharon met with a group of settlers to discuss a new plan that would move them to new communities in the Nitzanim area, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.
Sharon and top military officials and aides involved in resettlement, toured the Nitzanim area Thursday and other proposed relocation sites. The tour was closed to reporters.
The Nitzanim plan has already run into several snags.
Environmentalists are worried that the new communities there would destroy sensitive sand dunes and nature reserves. Environment Minister Shalom Simhon called a meeting Thursday of environmentalists, and activists planned a demonstration during Sharon's trip.
It also remained unclear where the settlers would live during the years it would take to build the new communities and what would happen to their compensation if the government built them new homes.
The government also faced criticism after it was revealed that Yonatan Bassi, head of the Disengagement Administration, was director general of a company that had a long-term lease on land in Nitzanim and that the company would make a huge profit if the settlers were moved to that land.
"I discovered the problem only yesterday," Bassi was quoted Thursday as telling the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "I will not get involved in the issue."
Government officials hope the Nitzanim plan will weaken settler resistance to the pullout, but security officials have expressed concerns that some bitter-enders might resist evacuation violently.
Police said Thursday they have stepped up their level of alert at the hilltop holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem revered by Jews and Muslims. Security officials fear Jewish extremists, who are planning a rally there Sunday, would try to attack the site in an effort to stop the pullout.
Police have banned the demonstration. They said they would clamp a security net over Jerusalem over the weekend and prevent Jewish worshippers on Sunday from entering the site, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. Muslims will still be allowed to pray at the site, police said.
The hilltop is the most hotly contested site in the region — where the Al Aqsa Mosque, marking the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, is built atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples.
"We will be in the Old City and the alleys to prevent confrontation," Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby said. "We are preparing for hundreds to thousands, whatever number comes we will be prepared."
Violence at the site could spark reactions all over the Muslim world. The Jewish extremists hope to divert Israeli forces from Gaza to Jerusalem with a huge demonstration in the summer, scuttling the withdrawal.
Palestinian militants also have an interest in stirring violence, to show that they are evicting the Israelis from Gaza by force, but an Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the latest assessment showed that all the Palestinian factions want the evacuation to be completed smoothly.
The pullout plan presented to Sharon includes rings of security, starting in the settlements and reaching all the way to the outskirts of Ashkelon, an Israeli city about 10 kilometers (six miles) north of Gaza.
Raanan Gissin, a senior Sharon aide, said a decision about whether to extend the security circles to Palestinian areas would be made close to the evacuation, set for late July. "It would depend very much on the intelligence analysis of the current threats at the time that we will actually begin implementing the disengagement," he said.