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Gaza attack would bring Israeli offensive, aide warns

As pullout nears, official cautions against any raid

JERUSALEM -- Israel would suspend its Gaza withdrawal and launch a ground offensive if Palestinian militants attacked Israeli soldiers and settlers during the pullout, the deputy defense minister, Ze'ev Boim, said yesterday. He was outlining the military's plans for the first time.

The warning was made less than three weeks before the start of the evacuation, which would mark the first time Israel has removed older settlements from the West Bank and Gaza. The first families to be uprooted from Gaza moved into temporary homes yesterday.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said repeatedly that the pullout from Gaza cannot be carried out under Palestinian fire. But he has made it clear that Israel would stop the gunfire, not the pullout.

While the Palestinian Authority is interested in a smooth handover, groups such as Hamas want to step up their attacks to give an impression that Israelis are fleeing from Palestinians.

Palestinian leaders have said that they are capable of taking control of Gaza, but they have complained that Israel is not allowing them enough ammunition for their security forces. That complaint has been backed by the United States.

The deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, said yesterday that to keep the peace, Israel should consider the possibility of giving arms and ammunition to the Palestinian police.

''If we tell the Palestinians to combat Hamas, we have to hear what their needs are," Peres told Israel Radio.

A Sharon aide, Ra'anan Gissin, said the Palestinians were using the ammunition issue as an excuse for inaction.

''The solution is not in bullets," Gissin said. ''The solution is in upgrading and reforming the security services so they will only engage in security and not in terrorist activity."

In his comments yesterday, Boim gave the first detailed look at Israel's plans for a response to any Palestinian attacks during the withdrawal, set to begin Aug. 17.

Boim told Israel Radio that in case of Palestinian fire, Israel would suspend the pullout. A division, thousands of soldiers, would move in ''to deal a blow," he said.

''We would stop the withdrawal," Boim added. ''We would deliver a harsh strike."

He said the operation would be similar to Defensive Shield, an invasion of the West Bank in 2002 in response to suicide bombings. That operation reversed a decade of peacemaking as Israel retook control of main West Bank towns.

The worst-case scenario would require ''10 days to two weeks of a heavy strike against terror to uproot it," Boim said.

The first few families to leave Gaza for a temporary village moved from the settlement of Nissanit, a few miles north into Israel, to a site next to the village of Nitzan, where 164 prefabricated houses await the settlers.

Though the structures are new, neat, and clean, with freshly planted grass and red-tiled roofs, the former settlers say the houses are nothing like the villas they were leaving behind.

''It's not what we're used to, but it's the best we could do," said Etti Ben Dahan, mother of six, as she showed Channel 2 TV around their new 970-square-foot house.

Officials estimate that about half of the 8,500 Gaza settlers would leave voluntarily before the forcible evacuation date, and that the rest would resist.

In another development yesterday, the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, moved to set a new date for parliamentary elections. Information Minister Nabil Shaath said Abbas would issue a decree next Sunday setting the date. The tentative date is Jan. 20.

Abbas postponed the election, which had been set for July, after three rounds of local balloting resulted in significant gains for Hamas, which is contesting the parliamentary elections for the first time. Though Abbas cited technical reasons for the delay, it appeared that he wanted to shore up security and implement reforms before facing the voters.

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