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Palestinians prepare for Israeli pullout
Palestinian security forces are gearing up to deploy 5,000 troops around settlements in the Gaza Strip as Israel intensified preparations just days before the historic pullout is to begin.
In a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas confirmed that the Palestinian Authority was ready to cope with the pullout, a spokesman said.
"President Mahmud Abbas gave his assurance that the Palestinians were ready for the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," the spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said in Gaza City.
After an appeal for calm from Abbas on Tuesday, a 5000-strong Palestinian force was being assembled in Gaza to ensure that the pullout, due to begin next week, takes place free of violence, security sources said.
"Forces from the national security branch and the police will be deployed at the start of the week," in zones bordering the Israeli settlements and settler roads leading to the Israel border, said one senior official.
"Some members of the national security branch have already taken up positions in some of these areas and they are going to receive significant reinforcements in preparation for the start of the Israeli pullout," he added.
The main task of the Palestinian force would be to prevent rocket attacks by fighters from groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both Israeli and Palestinian security sources said.
In his conversation with Rice, Abbas also urged the top US diplomat to put pressure on Israel to withdraw its troops from the Egypt-Gaza border crossing, where Cairo is slated to deploy 750 border guards under a tentative agreement.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reiterated he would make no further concessions over the main Jewish blocs in the West Bank, home to the vast majority of the 245,00 settlers.
"The settlement blocs will continue to exist. I will not negotiate on the subject of Jerusalem. The blocs will remain territorially linked to the state of Israel," he said in a television interview.
"At the same time, there will be no return of 1948 Palestinian refugees to Israel," he said of those forced from their homes or who voluntarily left British-mandate Palestine upon the creation of the state of Israel.