Gaza settlers ready to leave

Dozens of settlers from one of the most hardline Gaza Strip settlements packed their belongings into shipping crates on Wednesday, resigned to leaving when Israel quits the occupied strip.

Residents of Morag, a religious Jewish farming community, had vowed to resist Israel's evacuation of all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank under a plan billed as "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians.

But with the pullout to begin next week, trucks ferried at least 20 shipping containers into Morag, home to 221 residents.

"I have given up my farming business. I am waiting now for the army to come," Yaacov Shablila, 47, said as he packed. "I will stay until the authorities kick me out but why should I lose my possessions? Is it not enough they will take my home?"

As he packed, residents of the nearby settlement of Pe'at Sadeh held a tearful farewell ceremony as they prepared to move together to a new town near Ashkelon in southern Israel.

Israel has given the settlers until Aug. 17 to pack up belongings and leave their homes on land settlers see as a biblical birthright, but which Palestinians want for a state.

While polls show a narrow majority of Israelis support the pullout, many opponents condemn it as rewarding militants who fought Israel during a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000.

Palestinians welcome any Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, but they worry the pullout is a ruse for Israel to tighten its hold on swathes of land in the West Bank.

Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied Palestinian suspicions that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was designed as a swap for permanent control over far bigger settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon has ruled out dialogue on a Palestinian state before Palestinians disarm militants. Palestinians call this demand unrealistic without statehood on the horizon and fear Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank could dash their dreams, according to Haaretz.

"Gaza is not a tradeoff for the West Bank," said Olmert, known for periodically testing Sharon's thinking in public before policy is formed.

"We are prepared to carry on negotiations after the disengagement according to principles of the road map," said Olmert, referring to a U.S.-devised peace plan envisaging a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Sharon has cast the dismantling of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank more as a boon for Israeli security than a catalyst for negotiations toward a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Olmert said, "We have no illusion that the pullout in itself will create peace between us and the Palestinians, but ... the Palestinians do deserve to have their own state alongside Israel, in boundaries which will have to determined."

But Sharon says blocs of West Bank enclaves with the vast majority of the 240,000 settlers can never be ceded on strategic grounds. The settlements' rapid growth has cut deeply into land the Palestinians say undermine their aspirations to a viable state.

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