JERUSALEM – The government is considering moving up its mid-August withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search), senior government officials said Thursday, after a three-day protest against the pullout was thwarted but tied up tens of thousands of security forces.
Vice Premier Ehud Olmert (search), Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's point man on the Gaza evacuation, said he would favorably consider moving up the pullout date in light of the mass protest. Israel sent 20,000 police and soldiers to block demonstrators from marching to the Gaza settlements to reinforce the settlers there.
"This confrontation saps a great deal of energy, disrupts the lives of all of the country's residents, doesn't lead to any advantage. So I would definitely weigh [an earlier withdrawal] favorably," Olmert told Israel Radio (search).
Israeli officials might discuss moving up the pullout with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to another senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.
He said there were no legal obstacles to moving up the pullout "but there are other problems —— logistic problems, coordination [with the Palestinians], evaluation of the situation to minimize friction, and Palestinian terror."
The evacuation originally was to have begun in mid-July, but was pushed back to mid-August, ostensibly out of consideration for the religious Jews observing a three-week mourning period — beginning Sunday — for the destruction of the biblical Jewish Temples. Critics said the pullout was delayed because the government was far behind in its preparations.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said he hoped Rice's visit, which begins Thursday, would trigger a "comprehensive diplomatic process," with Israel's pullout from Gaza as the first step.
Rice hurriedly scheduled her trip here last week as a 5-month-old truce began falling apart amid a new wave of violence that threatened to freeze efforts for Israel to coordinate its Gaza pullout with the Palestinians.
Rice was to meet with Israel Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Thursday night, Sharon on Friday and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday.
She planned to make a direct appeal to the Israelis and Palestinians to put down violence and remain committed to a peaceful withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers, and act as a go-between to resolve last-minute snags.
The standoff between security forces and pullout opponents began Monday after as many as 30,000 protesters converged on the southern Israeli farming village of Kfar Maimon with the goal of marching into nearby Gaza, in defiance of a government order banning nonresidents from entering.
But rings of soldiers and police preventing them from leaving for the Gaza settlements, where they had hoped to reinforce the thousands of settlers living there and make the pullout more complex.
Pullout opponents gave up their protest and by late Thursday morning, only an estimated 200 to 300 remained and were preparing to board buses out of the area, police spokesman Avi Zelba said.
The fizzled protest was a severe setback for the settlement movement, but settler leader Bentsi Lieberman said Thursday withdrawal opponents would infiltrate Gaza "little by little" instead of in a mass march.
Pullout opponents have been quietly smuggled into Gaza's Gush Katif settlement bloc in the middle of the night in recent days and have been moving into new protest tent camps.
Settlers offered conflicting estimates of how many have made it into Gaza since the area was declared a closed military zone last week, with Lieberman putting it in the hundreds and a spokeswoman for the settlers' umbrella group, the Yesha Settlers Council, putting it at 2,000.
"We haven't finished," said Yesha spokeswoman Emily Amrusy said. "The process we began Monday will continue throughout the next month, continuously, in waves — and not as a one-time thing."
Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi estimated that dozens, not hundreds, have entered unauthorized. Military sources estimated 500 to 600 nonresidents are currently living in the settlement bloc, but said most entered before the closure.
The military said it beefed up security at the main crossing into Gush Katif. Some 250 anti-pullout activists were arrested overnight — most for trying to breach the closed military zone, and a few for trying to cut the fence around the territory, Zelba said.
Meanwhile, a boy was killed in the Gaza town of Khan Younis when a homemade rocket that Palestinian militants tried to fire at Israeli targets flew out of control and hit a house, Palestinian security officials said.