JERUSALEM – Israel might have to temporarily delay its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search) this summer if Palestinian militants attack, but it would resume the pullout after waging a counterattack, Israel's military chief said Tuesday.
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz's comments came ahead of meetings intended to lay the groundwork for coordinating the pullout between Israel and the Palestinians. Commanders met Tuesday evening in Tel Aviv, the first such session involving field-level officers, both sides said.
The Israeli military released a statement afterward saying both sides had agreed to further meetings.
According to the statement, the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, said Israel "will not allow terror attacks to interfere with the disengagement," the Israeli term for the pullout. Also, it said the Israeli military would undertake "pinpoint" actions in Gaza to stop attacks if the Palestinian Authority (search) fails to act.
No Palestinian comment was immediately available.
Halutz said the job of unarmed troops forcibly evacuating settlers while trying to defend against Palestinian fire would be complex and dangerous.
In that situation, the army would have to suspend the pullout and fight the militants, he said.
"I don't see how technically we can do both things at once," Halutz said. "There won't be disengagement under fire."
However, he did not specify how much violence Israel would be willing to absorb before stopping the pullout.
"(It) depends on how much fire, what kind of fire, where the fire is. But in principle, there can be no fire," he said. "We will have to deal with it, defeat it and then continue with the operation."
The pullout, involving evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the West Bank (search), is set to start in mid-August. It would be the first time Israel evacuated a veteran settlement from those territories, and settlers are hotly opposed, pledging resistance. Though settler leaders say it will be nonviolent, security officials have been warning that extremists could open fire on soldiers and police.
The military is also concerned about the possibility of Palestinian violence. While the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, is interested in coordinating a handover of the territories from Israel, militant groups such as Hamas might initiate violence to try to show that they are driving the Israelis out by force.
The internal conflict also plays into Palestinian politics, where Hamas is mounting a serious challenge to Abbas' Fatah party in parliamentary elections, originally set for July 17 but postponed by Abbas.
Hamas expects to take advantage of voter exasperation with 10 years of Fatah rule typified by corruption and inefficiency. Though most Palestinians blame Israel for four years of violence that wrecked their economy and caused thousands of deaths and injuries, polls show that many voters are pessimistic about the ability of their government to reap benefits from the Palestinian uprising.
One issue is a widespread feeling of insecurity, not only because of possible Israeli military action, but also because of armed Palestinian gangs ruling the streets.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia threatened to halt government functions if security chaos in the Palestinian areas continues.
"There are violations, especially by members of the security forces themselves. This is not acceptable," he said. "If no limits are placed on the deterioration in the security situation, the government will suspend its responsibilities."
Qureia said the execution of four criminals on Sunday was part of the process of restoring order.
During four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Palestinian security forces have lost control of their streets. Abbas has been working to combine more than a dozen competing and overlapping forces into an efficient service.
White House official Elliot Abrams was to arrive Tuesday to help plan for the upcoming visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a key mediator in the conflict, was expected to meet with Israeli officials Wednesday.