Israel's defense minister warned on Monday that he will send large forces into Palestinian neighborhoods if Israeli troops and settlers come under fire during the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.
The military faces twin threats during the pullout -- from extremist settlers and Palestinian militants. Settlers want to stop the evacuation of all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank, while militants want to show that they are driving the Israelis out by force.
Also Monday, Israeli officials said they might leave houses in Gaza settlements intact, reversing an earlier tendency to tear them down to spare the settlers the vision of Palestinians taking them over.
Palestinian attacks during the Gaza withdrawal "would require us to go into Palestinian Authority territory with very, very large forces to those places which overlook the areas to be evacuated," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.
As part of the truce declared earlier this month by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Israel has stopped its frequent raids into Palestinian areas of Gaza.
Originally described as "unilateral disengagement," the Gaza pullout is shaping up now as a joint effort involving Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt.
The death of Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11 brought about the change. Israel, with US backing, boycotted Arafat, charging that he was involved in Palestinian violence.
However, his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, spoke out against Palestinian attacks and cajoled militant groups into an informal ceasefire, leading to a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt where Israel and the Palestinians declared an end to four years of bloodshed. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered to coordinate the pullout with Palestinian forces to keep Gaza from falling into the hands of militants like Hamas.
Also, Egypt said it would post 750 soldiers on the Gaza-Egypt border if Israel withdraws from the border road. Israel is still considering what to do, after hundreds of raids there to search for tunnels the Palestinians use to smuggle arms and other contraband into Gaza from Egypt.
In deciding on the Gaza withdrawal last year, the Israeli Cabinet initially said it would destroy the buildings in the settlements.
However, national security adviser Giora Eiland said that would increase the cost of the withdrawal by about US$18.4 million.
"We advise against destroying the homes," Eiland told Israel Radio.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank city of Hebron, about 1,000 students, some wearing masks and carrying toy rifles, rallied in support of Islamic Jihad and a Friday suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis, endangering the truce.
Some participants chanted, "Our beloved Jihad blew up Tel Aviv" and "No peace with Israelis." Effigies of Sharon and US President George W. Bush lay on the ground, as if dead, surrounded by fake blood.
A car bomb discovered by Israeli troops in the West Bank on Monday contained half a ton of explosives, the military said yesterday, making it the largest bomb used by Palestinian militants in more than four years of violence.
Troops discovered the vehicle parked at a junction near the town of Jenin and safely detonated it in a controlled explosion.
Regional commander Colonel Oren Avman said the bomb contained some 500kg of explosives.