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Israeli troops drill for pullout, as president appeals for peace

Opponents gather at Western Wall

KEREM SHALOM, Israel -- In a final drill, thousands of Israeli troops prepared yesterday for some of the worst-case scenarios of next week's Gaza pullout, from Palestinian mortar fire to settler violence and equipment failure.

In a small West Bank settlement also slated for evacuation, residents began turning in their weapons to help ward off violence during the withdrawal, and an American seminary student was to be deported because of fears he was planning attacks against Arabs.

Beginning Wednesday, some 55,000 soldiers and police will remove about 9,000 Jewish settlers in 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank. While officials expect most settlers will leave voluntarily, they are bracing for passive resistance and attacks by Jewish extremists or Palestinian militants.

Yesterday evening, President Moshe Katsav of Israel made a rare televised address to the nation, appealing to the settlers to leave peacefully. ''The time has come," he said. ''You must respect the decisions of the Cabinet and the parliament."

More than 100,000 opponents of the pullout gathered yesterday at sundown for a prayer service at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews can pray. Rabbis identified with settlers called on soldiers to refuse to take part in the pullout.

The protesters, including ultra-Orthodox Jews who up to now have stayed above the fray, filled the plaza in front of the holy site and spilled into the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter.

Yesterday's drill took place at Kerem Shalom, a communal farm along Israel's border with Gaza. The army paid for residents to stay in a hotel during the exercise.

Soldiers began deploying in Kerem Shalom around sunrise, sealing the village, and were followed by police and paramilitary forces.

Soldiers posing as settlers barricaded themselves inside a synagogue and climbed onto rooftops, shouting slogans and throwing fake rocks and bags of flour. One soldier participating in the drill fell off the roof and was treated by paramedics. Using a tactic favored by US troops in combat, the army blared rock music to overpower settler chants.

As police escorted settlers to waiting buses, mock Palestinian mortar fire fell on the area, forcing some soldiers to scurry for cover while others carried on with the operation. During the chaos, mock Palestinian gunmen infiltrated the village and took several hostages, and special forces rushed to the scene.

Israel has been in close contact with Palestinian security officials to help ensure a smooth pullout. Yesterday, Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, urged the Palestinians to act forcefully against militants and expressed hope that the withdrawal will lead to a resumption of peace talks.

Olmert urged Palestinians to ''rise to this opportunity" and ''understand that this is a significant move that must be responded to equally by the Palestinians."

The army has also been encouraging settlers to leave peacefully.

Security officials have gone on high alert since an extremist Jew opposed to the withdrawal opened fire on a crowded bus last week, killing four Israeli Arabs, before he was killed by an angry mob.

The Justice Ministry, meanwhile, said a Jewish seminary student with dual Israeli-American citizenship would be deported to the United States, because of fears he was planning to attack Arabs in an effort to derail the withdrawal plan.

Saadia Hirschkop, 18, of New York City, agreed to be deported for 40 days instead of serving time in jail. Two other extremists arrested with Hirschkop remained under administrative detention, a procedure allowing arrest without charge.

In the small West Bank settlement of Homesh marked for dismantling, residents began handing over their weapons to security officers.

Assaf Mani, in charge of security in the settlement, said the weapons being collected yesterday and today would be turned over to the army. He said residents also were storing private weapons with dealers or other closed places.

''People are angry about this [the withdrawal] but not opposing it. They are turning in their weapons without incident," Mani said. He declined to say how many weapons had been collected.

Israeli media said a similar collection was under way in Sanur, a former artists colony that had been taken over by dozens of religious ideologues. Yossi Dagan, the settlement's spokesman, denied the reports, and said there were no immediate plans to collect weapons.

Police also arrested a West Bank couple after the family refused to leave Sanur, Israeli media reported.

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