GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Palestinian security forces are prepared to take over areas in the Gaza Strip that Israel is planning to evacuate next month, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) said Wednesday, rejecting the findings of an independent group that concluded the forces are bloated, poorly armed and corrupt.
Israel and the United States fear chaos will erupt after a mid-August Israeli withdrawal from 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four West Bank enclaves. The Palestinian Authority (search) is working to train security forces to ensure militants don't fire on withdrawing settlers or loot the properties left behind.
"The Palestinian Authority can fill the void after the evacuation," Qureia said after visiting a training base for recruits in Gaza. "We are capable of shouldering our responsibility."
The Palestinian Civil Defense Department (search) on Wednesday took out ads on the Internet and local radio stations, telling people to stay away from the Jewish settlements after the evacuation. The ads warn that ordnance could be left behind, and must be reported to the proper authorities if found.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) has been trying to preserve a fragile truce involving Israel and militant groups, who periodically fire mortar rounds and homemade rockets at Jewish settlements.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders were in Gaza on Wednesday as part of preparations for the withdrawal.
Qureia's comments were in response to a report released Tuesday by a U.S.-based conflict resolution group, the Strategic Assessments Initiative, which found the Palestinian security forces are bloated but insufficiently armed.
The forces suffer from professional apathy and abuses of power, despite changes made since the November death of Yasser Arafat (search), said the report, which was financed by the Dutch and Canadian governments and has been given to the Palestinian Authority.
"We must succeed in this mission. The world is watching us," Qureia told the forces. "Our concern is to see the occupation leaving our land, and to reflect a positive image to the world about our capability."
Israel, meanwhile, is planning to sign a deal next week with Egypt that would allow Israel to evacuate a patrol road along the Gaza-Egypt border, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) said. The agreement would increase the number of Egyptian troops securing the frontier.
Israel has said it wants to withdraw from the so-called Philadelphi Road, but has been concerned that without an Israeli presence, arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza will increase.
But in an interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, Mofaz said his forces will leave the area by October. "I don't plan on leaving soldiers on the road when we are out," Mofaz said. "I won't leave an enclave."
The Palestinians want control over the border crossing, seeing it as a crucial link to the outside world.
Mofaz also said he estimates that at least half of the 8,500 Gaza settlers will voluntarily leave the area before the formal withdrawal begins. His statement suggested that settler resistance to the withdrawal — which is expected to be fierce — could be significantly weaker than predicted.
"I assess that at least 50 percent to 60 percent of the settlers in Gaza will leave voluntarily," Mofaz said.
The first group of settlers will leave in early August — when the keys to government-issued prefabricated homes are handed over — and a larger group will leave between Aug. 15 and Aug. 17, when a forced evacuation is set to begin, Mofaz added.
But opponents to the Gaza pullout are planning a series of demonstrations next week to bring thousands of people into the Gaza settlements, settler leaders said.
Earlier this month, opponents failed to march to the Gaza Strip due to an immense security presence of 20,000 troops posted along roads and around the demonstration to prevent protesters from achieving their goal.