Israel aims to begin the final stage of its military pullout from the Gaza Strip next Monday to complete it as scheduled on Thursday, Sept. 15, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Wednesday.
The withdrawal of troops after 38 years of occupation follows the evacuation of 8,500 Gaza settlers and marks the first time Israel will give up Jewish settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
Israel’s army chief, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, told a parliamentary committee that the withdrawal could be completed in as little as 24 hours, Israeli media said.
The final stage of the pullout must still be approved by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet on Sunday. It is expected to pass easily. The question of exactly how the territory will be handed to the Palestinians remained unclear.
Mofaz told reporters that Israeli troops would leave the now-demolished settlements at the same time as the corridor between Gaza and Egypt, which has agreed with Israel to post extra forces to try to stop Gaza militants from smuggling arms.
The Gaza withdrawal should be complete by the time Sharon addresses the United Nations General Assembly, where he is expected to win applause for a step seen internationally as a possible catalyst for peacemaking.
Israel gave up all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank under Sharon’s plan for “disengagement” from conflict with the Palestinians.
Palestinians welcome the withdrawal, but fear it was a ruse aimed largely at strengthening Israel’s hold on major settlements in the West Bank, which they also want for a state. Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 war.