updated 3/5/2006 7:08:33 AM ET 2006-03-05T12:08:33

Israel is planning more unilateral pullouts from West Bank settlements, though troops will remain in the evacuated areas, a top political ally of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday.

“It will be only a civilian disengagement, not a military disengagement,” Avi Dichter, a former security chief, told Israel Radio.

The process of carrying out a second pullout will begin immediately after a new government is formed following Israel’s March 28 elections, Dichter said. The entire process would take about four years, he said.

Polls show Olmert’s Kadima Party to be the clear front-runner in the upcoming Israeli vote, with at least double the strength of its nearest rivals.

Dichter did not specify which settlements might be evacuated in the radio interview. But in its Sunday editions, the Yediot Ahronot newspaper cited him as saying the withdrawal would include at least 17 settlements, including some most militantly committed to a Jewish presence in the West Bank. About 15,000 of Israel’s 235,000 settlers live in these communities.

Over the summer, Israeli settlers and soldiers evacuated the Gaza Strip, and settlers were uprooted from four small West Bank communities.

Israel: No negotiating partner
With Hamas militants about to take control of the Palestinian Authority, Israel has no negotiating partner, Dichter said.

“Israel will have to define, by itself, its final borders, and that will involve the consolidation of smaller settlements into settlement blocs,” he said.

Israel has said it will have no ties with a Hamas-led government unless the group renounces violence, recognizes Israel and accepts past peace agreements. Hamas, sworn to Israel’s destruction, has said it would not accept the conditions, which are backed by the United States and the European Union.

“Our tie to Israel is that of a nation and its occupiers. It is not going to be in any way a relationship based on legitimate neighbors or partners or allies,” Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas lawmaker from Gaza, said in a statement Sunday.

Olmert recently said Israel plans to hold on to its three major settlement blocs and the Jordan River Valley. All except the Ariel bloc, 10 miles inside the West Bank, are close to Israel’s border. Yediot reported Israel would also hold onto three other smaller settlement areas, including the volatile settlement in the heart of Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba.

Jewish settler leaders have vowed to fight any evacuation plan. After a largely passive resistance in Gaza, settlers clashed fiercely with security forces who dismantled nine homes in an unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost in January. More than 200 people, most of them security forces, were wounded.

Benny Katzover, head of the Elon Moreh settlement, one of the most extreme communities mentioned in the Kadima plan, said further withdrawals would not be as peaceful as the Gaza pullout.

“There is no reason why we shouldn’t be beaten and suffer ... and stop this process with our bodies,” Katzover told Israel’s Army Radio.

Palestinian politics
Palestinian attacks on Israel from Gaza have continued since the coastal strip was turned over to Palestinian control, provoking Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire.

Hamas — listed by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization — is holding negotiations with other Palestinian factions in an attempt to form a Cabinet later this month.

The group is also trying to court Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ ousted Fatah Party, which favors negotiations with Israel, but Fatah is inclined to stay in the opposition.

Abbas told a meeting of senior Fatah officials on Saturday that participation in a Hamas-led government is contingent on the militant group accepting the Mideast peace process, the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam reported Sunday.

Meanwhile, Abbas was busy cleaning Fatah’s ranks after the party’s election flop. Abbas told party officials at Saturday’s meeting that he would sack 250 members who campaigned for non-Fatah candidates in the January elections, Al Ayyam reported. Fatah has already fired 78 members who ran as independents.

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