Israel to Speed Up Military Withdrawal From Gaza

Israel announced today it was accelerating the timetable for its military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the final phase in its landmark pullback from territory the Palestinians want for their future state.

The troops' departure is expected to begin Monday, and the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told lawmakers it could take as little as 24 hours. The 21 former Jewish settlements then will be handed over to the Palestinian Authority.

The troop withdrawal had been planned to begin on or about Sept. 15.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government drew no explicit link between the somewhat speeded-up timetable and the execution-style killing early today of a former senior Palestinian security official in Gaza.

But Israeli officials said the killing of Moussa Arafat, a cousin of the late leader Yasser Arafat, showed the urgent need for the governing Palestinian Authority to crack down on militant groups to prevent a slide into chaos in Gaza.

A Palestinian militant organization known as the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for the killing of Arafat. He was dragged into the street and shot 23 times after dozens of masked assailants armed with automatic rifles and antitank missiles stormed his Gaza City house before dawn.

Arafat's son Manhal, a 38-year-old military intelligence officer, was abducted by the attackers and was still missing at nightfall.

Moussa Arafat, who lost his job as head of Palestinian military intelligence in a reform drive four months ago, was widely seen as a divisive and unpopular figure in Gaza.

The Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza still requires the formal approval of Sharon's Cabinet, which meets Sunday, but is expected to pass easily. Soldiers last month emptied the Jewish settlements of their 8,500 residents.

One reason that Israel is eager to complete the withdrawal is that Sharon is traveling this month to the United Nations to address the General Assembly, a body that Israel has long considered hostile. Israeli diplomats believe the pullout has substantially improved their nation's international standing.

Israeli officials warned again today that there would be an extremely heavy military response to terror attacks originating in Gaza after the troops depart, Los Angeles Times reports.

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