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Gaza pullout plan draws near

Defense minister says outline to be ready next month

JERUSALEM -- Israel's defense minister, undaunted by growing resistance within the ruling party to a planned pullout from the Gaza Strip, said yesterday that the army's blueprint for the withdrawal will be ready next month.

Gaza settlers charged that the government is already preparing to throw them out of their homes.

Also yesterday, Israel's attorney general urged the government to consider adopting an international convention governing the treatment of residents in occupied lands. This showed increased Israeli sensitivity to international criticism, particularly in the aftermath of a ruling by the International Court of Justice against its contentious West Bank separation barrier.

The barrier and the Gaza withdrawal are hallmarks of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan, which he said is meant to reduce friction between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sharon hopes to carry out the Gaza pullout next year, but it has sparked an internal uprising by hard-liners within his Likud party.

The resistance has raised questions over whether Sharon can carry out the withdrawal without his government collapsing. Hard-line opposition has already cost Sharon his parliamentary majority, leaving him somewhat vulnerable to no-confidence votes.

Sharon insists he is going ahead, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking after a visit to an army base in northern Israel, said yesterday that planning for the pullout was progressing.

"The main points of the policy have already been decided," he said. "We plan to complete our plans in September."

Sharon has said Israel will uproot all 21 settlements in Gaza as well as four isolated enclaves in the West Bank. About 8,000 Jewish settlers live in Gaza among 1.3 million Palestinians.

Mofaz said the military's preparations include the possibility of resistance from the settlers. "I hope we will not see extreme steps against Israeli soldiers and Israeli police," he said.

Settler representatives have harshly criticized the plan. Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gaza settlers, accused the army of sending in soldiers to the Neve Dekalim settlement yesterday to prepare for the pullout.

"The soldiers wandered around the homes and recorded different facts," Sternberg said, claiming they even counted the numbers of flower pots in individual homes.

The army said the soldiers were conducting a routine exercise unrelated to the withdrawal.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz recommended the government seriously consider adopting the Fourth Geneva Convention, a set of international legal guidelines governing the treatment of occupied peoples, a statement from his office said.

The recommendation comes after a scathing ruling last month by the International Court of Justice, which called the barrier built to separate Israelis from Palestinian areas a violation of international law and urged Israel to tear it down. Mazuz has ordered his advisers to assess the World Court's decision.

Although the ruling -- and a UN General Assembly resolution backing it -- were nonbinding, the matter has raised concerns in Israeli legal and political circles.

"In terms of general public opinion, world public opinion, it does have ramifications. That's why it's so ominous," conceded a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The 1949 convention lays out the responsibilities of an occupying power in treating the local population. It is meant to protect occupied peoples from harm and guarantee them access to education, health care, and other services.

It also forbids occupying powers from "transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies" -- a stipulation that could have negative implications for Israeli settlements.

Yesterday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized Sharon's approval last week of a plan to build new housing in four West Bank settlements that the government insists will remain part of Israel under any peace settlement with the Palestinians. Annan called it a violation of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan. Since capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war, Israel has said the convention does not apply to the West Bank because the region does not belong to another country, and it insists the dispute with the Palestinians be decided through negotiations.

In violence yesterday, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli gunfire in southern Gaza, Palestinians said. The military said soldiers opened fire on Palestinians planting a bomb.

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