Israeli MPs reject pullout delay

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — The Israeli parliament overwhelmingly rejected a last-ditch move by right-wingers Wednesday to delay the Gaza Strip pullout for up to a year as a protest march against next month’s withdrawal was blocked.

A series of bills put forward by a number of MPs, including two former Cabinet ministers, were rejected after a stormy debate by a vote of 69-41, with two abstentions.

A sponsor of one of the bills, former welfare minister Zevulun Orlev, had proposed that the pullout not begin before July 2006, arguing that the authorities had made insufficient preparations for the 8,000 Gaza settlers.

“The government is trying to fool us when it says that everything is ready to rehouse the settlers,” he said.

“The timetable drawn up by the government is cruel and inhuman. Communities risk losing everything — both economically and socially,” added Orlev, who quit the government last year in protest at disengagement.

Uzi Landau, another minister who left the government over his opposition to the pullout, said there was “no need for the obsession of respecting the August start date.”

Sharon has consistently stressed that the pullout, expected to last less than a month after it begins on August 17, will go ahead in line with his timetable.

The prime minister said the outcome vindicated his plan and illustrated the widespread support that it had in the country.

“The rejection of this proposition is proof that the government, Knesset and even the public support the disengagement,” he told reporters.

“The disengagement plan will be implemented on time, as planned. But I want to say to the settlers: ‘I understand your suffering, I feel the same pain. I love all of you.'”

In addition to the 21 Gaza settlements due to be evacuated, the residents of four small Jewish enclaves in the northern West Bank are also to be uprooted from their homes.

The rejection of the bills was a further blow to opponents of disengagement who have been frustrated in their attempts to stage a mass solidarity march towards the Gush Katif settlement bloc in southern Gaza.

With police and soldiers blocking all access to and from the small town of Kfar Maimon, most of demonstrators drifted away by evening and abandoned their intention to march towards the Kissufim border crossing.

Many of the some 7,000 diehard opponents who stuck it out to the bitter end were blocked by a mass of police and soldiers as they later tried to march towards Gush Katif.

There were no immediate reports of clashes between the two sides as the protesters approached a metal gate behind which hundreds of police stood shoulder to shoulder.

“As far as we are concerned, the protesters can stay as long as they want in Kfar Maimon but they are forbidden from leaving in order to march towards Kissufim [the crossing into southern Gaza],” police spokeswoman Sharon Brown said.

Elhanan Rappaport, a 41-year-old from the West Bank settlement of Dolev, said he had no intention of giving up the struggle for the 21 Gaza settlements to remain in Israeli hands.

“We will not give up our fight and we will continue onwards in spite of the roadblocks,” said Rappaport.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was meanwhile expected in the region by Saturday after warning that time was running short to finalise preparations for the pullout.

“My job as I go out there is to keep reminding people that they want to have this tied down by the time the withdrawal begins,” she said before arriving in Sengal on the first leg of her trip.

Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath said the Palestinians would urge Rice to pressure Israel to ensure the pullout leads to a swift resumption of talks about withdrawals from the West Bank.

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