NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip – The Israeli military began removing shipping containers from a base in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the army's first concrete step toward a planned pullout this summer.
A crane lifted the containers onto flatbed trucks, which drove out of the base of the Southern Brigade in the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim (search), the largest in Gaza.
In all, 30 containers containing furniture, computers, weapons and uniforms were to be removed Wednesday, the army said, though the base won't be completely dismantled until the end of the withdrawal.
The equipment was removed as Israel's government considered delaying the start of the pullout by three weeks to Aug. 15. A decision is to be made by the end of the week. Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) have sent mixed signals on whether they favor a delay.
Sharon on Wednesday was quoted as saying that he expects Palestinians to loot Jewish settlements immediately after Israeli forces leave the Gaza Strip. U.S. officials have urged Israel and the Palestinians to coordinate the withdrawal, in part to ensure an orderly transfer of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza.
"Immediately after the Israeli army leaves there, everything will be looted," Sharon told senior Cabinet ministers on Tuesday, according to the Yediot Ahronot daily. The comments were confirmed by a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sharon's prediction would imply that he believes planning is futile, and that chaos would ensue in any event once Israeli troops pull out.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (search) said he believed looting was unlikely.
"The Palestinians are preparing themselves and will make sure that the day after is smooth," he said.
Erekat said he would meet on Wednesday or Thursday with a top Sharon aide, Dov Weisglass (search), to deal with unfinished business, such as the handover of three more West Bank towns to Palestinian control.
Sharon had promised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) at a February summit to pull out of five towns over several weeks, but the military has only left two so far — Jericho and Tulkarem.
Abbas complained in remarks published Wednesday that the Israeli government is inciting against him and that it has violated agreements reached at a summit in February.
It was Abbas' harshest public criticism of Sharon since the Palestinian leader took office three months ago. Sharon has accused Abbas of not doing enough to rein in Palestinian militants, and voiced his criticism of Abbas in a meeting with President Bush earlier this month.
In an interview with the Haaretz daily, Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president complained that Israel has not kept its promises.
He also said Israel is undercutting him with constant criticism.
"Day and night, they are inciting against me in the Israeli media," Abbas told Haaretz. "I am not the complaining type, but despite the instructions we have issued to halt incitement on our side, Israeli officials have not stopped inciting for a moment."
When Abbas stepped down as prime minister in 2003, after only four months in office, he blamed Sharon in part for the failure of his government, saying Israel systematically undermined him. Israeli officials have since acknowledged they could have done more to boost Abbas' standing in 2003, including by releasing prisoners.
Abbas said he is willing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with Israel, and that he expects meetings to start next week.
Israel's government, meanwhile, is to decide by the weekend whether to put off the withdrawal by three weeks, accommodating a religious holiday period but possibly signaling uncertainty and weakness in the face of settler opposition.
The confusion reflected growing complaints that the government is not ready to carry out the evacuation of 9,000 settlers — it has yet to figure out where they will go.
The scheduling issue is that the evacuation of the 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank would coincide with the annual period of mourning observant Jews mark for the destruction of the biblical Temples, leading up to the fast day of Tisha B'Av (search) on Aug. 14.