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Forces deployed as Gaza pullout starts
Israeli and Palestinian forces have deployed to ensure calm in the final countdown to Israel's evacuation of Jewish settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip.
Thousands of Israeli police blocked approaches to Gaza to keep back Jewish protesters sworn to stopping the first removal of settlements this week from land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
The threat of disruptions to the pullout has grown with a recent influx of some 4000 ultranationalist Jews into Gaza settlements to reinforce hardliners among the 8500 inhabitants vowing to resist removal.
"We are on our highest alert," Israeli police commissioner Moshe Karadi said as roadblocks sprouted across southwest Israel to prevent more pullout foes slipping into the Gush Katif settlements or swamping exit routes inside Israel.
Speaking to Aljazeera by telephone from Gaza, Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath said: "We have a momentary and incomplete confidence as we look forward to the evacuation of all territories Israel occupied in 1967.
"We feel the Gaza pullout is a first step towards getting our independence and freedom.
"With the departure of those colonisers, we smell the breeze of freedom and hope and that this step will open the way towards a just and real peace to build our country and regain our rights."
Shaath went on to say he believes the pullout does not represent full liberty. He said the withdrawal was without doubt the outcome of the Palestinians' steadfastness and great sufferings.
Whether the withdrawal was as a result of a political decision or mutual negotiations, the colonisers have finally left our lands, he said.
"At this point people can leave but no one can enter," said army spokeswoman Miri Regev.
Settlers refusing to leave have decided to lock entry gates of their enclaves to army officers due to come on Monday to urge inhabitants to go voluntarily or be ejected by squads of unarmed troops starting on Wednesday, Israeli media said.
By rare agreement with Israel, 7500 Palestinian security men in Gaza began moving into position on the outskirts of the fortified settlements to ward off possible efforts by Palestinian resistance factions to shoot at departing settlers.
The security men, expected to station themselves as close as 150m from Israeli troops, would also prevent Palestinians going into empty settlements to seize property.
Wearing military fatigues and red caps and waving Palestinian national flags, the security forces brought mattresses and tents to pitch in their positions.
The Disengagement Plan gets rolling at midnight (2100 GMT) on Sunday when border crossings to settlements will be sealed.
On Monday, thousands of officers are to spread out through all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank, informing inhabitants they have 48 hours to go on their own.
Gaza settler council chairman Avner Shimoni declined to confirm enclave gates would be shut but told Israel Radio: "We definitely won't make it easy for those coming to expel us.
"If you ask me, 50 to 60% of us will remain and the rest will leave (before Wednesday)."
There was a moderate flow of settlers departing Gush Katif on Sunday as vehicles pulling trailers piled with suitcases, mattresses and chairs passed the Kissufim crossing into Israel.
Polls show most Israelis favour Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's move to jettison Gaza and a bit of the West Bank to help defuse conflict with Palestinians in revolt.
Major General Dan Harel, Israeli commander for the Gaza theatre, said up to 4000 opponents of the pullout had got into the enclaves by overstaying visitor permits, hiding in car trunks or using other false pretences to outwit border controls.
"They won't prevent the army and police from carrying out the decisions of the cabinet and parliament. They will make it more colourful, I hope not more violent," Harel said.
He said he hoped half the Gaza settlers would depart before Wednesday. Israel, which has devoted some 50,000 troops and police to the pullout, aims to have the settlers out by 4 September.
National Home, the radical Jewish group spearheading resistance in support of hardline settlers, called on supporters to block Gaza access roads with their bodies or cars.
It urged settlers to prepare for soldiers reaching their houses by barricading doors and windows and tying themselves to furniture and fences. If hustled into evacuation buses, settlers "should fight to get off, even through windows".
Israeli military correspondents said the army was concerned about its failure to seal Gaza against "infiltrators".
The leaders of Fatah and Hamas have formed a coordination committee to oversee Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.
The leaders of the two movements said they would agree on a time to hold the Palestinian legislative and municipal elections.
"We will discuss Palestinian legislative and municipal elections," Fatah member Ahmed Hallas told Aljazeera.
"Another committee has been entrusted with discussing rules linked to the electoral process", he said.
US led mediators hope the pullout will foster a road map process towards a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. Palestinians welcome so-called disengagement.
But they fear Sharon devised the move primarily as a smokescreen to cement Israel's hold on most of the West Bank where 230,000 settlers live, denying Palestinians a state of a viable size.
Some 2.4 million Palestinians live in the West Bank while 1.4 million are crammed into tiny coastal Gaza. The World Court describes the Israeli settlements as illegal.
Speaking to Aljazeera from Gaza, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Perez said he thought the withdrawal was the right beginning.
"I see happy faces in Gaza. I am delighted and I hope to see people in Gaza more delighted, well-to-do and breathing freedom.
"I am confident we will be neighbours and not enemies."
But he also said that hopes of prosperity in Gaza rested with Hamas. "If Hamas stopped firing and killing, life in Gaza would be better," he said.
Aljazeera + Agencies