JERUSALEM – Israel (search) could eventually relinquish more West Bank (search) settlements, beyond the four to be dismantled in coming weeks, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) suggested in an interview published Friday. But he reiterated that Israel would keep major settlement blocs in any peace deal.
The Israeli Defense Ministry, meanwhile, wants to complete the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank already by Sept. 4, rather than in mid-September, the original target date, security officials said. The forcible removal of settlers from their homes there is to begin next week.
The deadline was moved up even as military sources raised to 3,000 the number of people they estimate have entered Gaza settlements to bolster resistance.
"The settlement blocs will remain" in Israeli hands, Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, reiterating his oft-stated policy. "I never replied when asked what the boundaries of the settlements blocs are — and not because I'm not familiar with the map."
Asked whether Israel would eventually pull out of several small West Bank settlements, he replied: "Not everything will be there. The issue will be raised during the final status talks with the Palestinians."
When Sharon decided more than a year ago to quit Gaza, captured 38 years ago, he reasoned that would make it easier for Israel to hold on to the major West Bank settlement blocs, where most of the 240,000 settlers live.
The boundaries of those blocs are in dispute, with an especially controversial plan being Israel's program to build 3,650 housing units in an unsettled area of West Bank land outside Jerusalem.
Israel's determination to hold on to and expand these blocs could cloud hopes that the impending withdrawal from Gaza would restart stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The Defense Ministry has modified its target date for completing the Gaza evacuation, which is to begin Wednesday, because 55,000 soldiers and police will be involved in the forcible removal of resisters — about 10,000 more than originally planned, security officials said.
In all, 9,000 settlers are to be uprooted.
President Bush endorsed the withdrawal in an interview broadcast Thursday on Israel TV. "The disengagement is, I think, a part of making Israel more secure and peaceful," he said.
Within Gaza, there were conflicting signs of the impending evacuation deadline. At the largest Gaza settlement, Neve Dekalim, supermarket shelves were half-empty, with basic supplies such as oil, flour and eggs all but cleaned out. A nearby clothing store was advertising a huge sale.
But a fully stocked toy and stationery store was charging full prices.
Resistance rhetoric sounded equally ambivalent.
Libby Weinberger, 63, a former New Yorker, denied this would be the settlers' last Sabbath in Gaza.
"Nothing in life is certain," said Weinberger, who came to the Neve Dekalim settlement from her home in the Israeli town of Raanana to lend her settler daughter moral support.
Her daughter, she said, hasn't sought state compensation for the evacuation "because she doesn't believe she'll be leaving," said Weinberger, who moved to Israel from New York 33 years ago.
But on the other hand, she acknowledged her daughter was considering packing up her house, and that the evacuation might go through. "She's definitely not leaving voluntarily," Weinberger said of her daughter.
Neve Dekalim's population is overwhelmingly observant, and there has been much talk there of relying on divine deliverance from the evacuation decree.
Secular Nissanit, by contrast, was a virtual ghost town late Thursday.
Furniture, windows and even red roof tiles in what had been a community of 1,100 had been removed from many of the houses, leaving them empty shells. Yards were filled with boxes and broken hulks of plastic furniture. A small pink bike lay abandoned next to one house.
Tens of thousands of anti-pullout protesters filled a square in downtown Tel Aviv on Thursday night, vowing to block the withdrawal.
Settler leaders said they would send thousands toward Gaza next week in an attempt to reinforce the resistance. On Friday, the military estimated that 3,000 non-residents have entered Gaza in recent months to make things more difficult for evacuating forces. Earlier this week, it put the number at 2,000.
At Morag, one of the more militant Gaza settlements, crude holes smashed through the outside walls of second-floor attics were testimony to the illegal presence of reinforcements. The holes, and the ladders propped up underneath them, allow access to the strangers who have come to the settlement to beef up the opposition.
On Thursday, the military stopped issuing entry permits to settlers' relatives and friends because so many visitors have remained in the strip after their permits expired.
The Palestinian Authority is anxious for a smooth handover that would prove its ability to control volatile Gaza after the Israelis depart. Militant factions, however, are trying to create the impression that they are driving out the Israelis by force, and have been firing rockets and mortars at Gaza settlements and nearby Israeli towns daily.
In Gaza early Friday, about 1,000 armed and masked Hamas militants trained to infiltrate and attack Jewish settlements. It wasn't clear whether this signaled an intent by the militant group to fire on settlers and evacuation forces during the impending pullout.
A spokesman for the group, who identified himself as Abu Anas, said, "We will keep our weapons in hand until we liberate all our land. Gaza is the beginning. We will not lay down our weapons after the Zionists withdraw from Gaza because the road ahead is long."
The Palestinian Authority's information minister and deputy prime minister, Nabil Shaath, said in response that the government would "not permit two authorities in Palestine."