Monday Israel starts pulling out of 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank. After it's cleared, the land will be handed over to Palestinian control. Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ilene Prusher explains how - and why - this will happen.
In the midst of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to promote disengagement as Israel's best way of extricating itself from the conflict and decreasing its vulnerability to terrorism.
Mr. Sharon endorsed a view Israel's left-wing has argued for years: Being in some parts of the Occupied Territories was more of a security liability than an asset. And, for the first time ever, Sharon said in 2003 that he wanted to end the occupation.
"It is not possible to continue holding 3-1/2 million people under occupation," he told Likud members in May 2003. "You may not like the word, but what's happening is occupation. This is a terrible thing for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for the Israeli economy."
Israel occupied the territories after taking control of Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli political figures - Sharon foremost among them - argued for building settlements in the territories to achieve several goals. The settlements would create "facts on the ground" that would make it impossible for Israel to turn the disputed lands over to the Palestinians. And the settlements might also, in the long term, populate the territories with enough Israelis to warrant annexation.
The settlements and settlers were also viewed as a security buffer against future invasions. The first settlement in Gaza, Kfar Darom, was set up in 1970.
After 1993, when Israel and the Palestinians reached a peace accord after the first intifada, Israel pulled out of all populated areas of Gaza, withdrawing only to settlements and military installations.
This afforded the Palestinian Authority (PA) room to establish a measure of self-rule. However, Israel continued to control all border crossings and Palestinian movement in and out of Gaza, and heavily curtailed the flow of Palestinian workers into Israel in response to suicide bombings.
When Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in September 2000, a second intifada broke out and Israel declared it was retaking control of the territories.
If settlers haven't left by Wednesday, they will begin to be forcibly removed. According to the government, anyone who refuses to evacuate could lose up to 30 percent of the compensation benefits - up to $300,000 per family.
Those who are uncooperative will also have to bear a larger burden of their moving costs. Goods left behind will be put into containers and sent to a warehouse at the settlers' expense. Those, however, who willingly remove their belongs before the evacuation can have them moved to a place of the evacuees' choosing.
Israel intends, by most estimates, to deploy up to 50,000 troops to carry out the plan that is the country's largest deployment since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The cost is expect to be about 7.5 billion Israeli shekels (or about $1.6 billion).
The Israeli military has not released a schedule for redeployment because it wants to reserve "an element" of surprise, according to an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) official. The smaller and less ideologically right-wing settlements, viewed as easier to evacuate, were originally said to be first, but now the order may be inverted, with more religious settlements evacuated first. However, a cabinet vote last week gave Sharon the go ahead for evacuating three isolated settlements: Netzarim, Kfar Darom, and Morag.
Israeli officials say that if disengagement goes smoothly, they will have the settlements evacuated in two to three weeks. The four small West Bank settlements will be removed in early September.
Although there aren't formal peace talks, Israeli and Palestinian officials have been meeting regularly in an attempt to agree on security arrangements as part of the disengagement.
The Palestinian Authority has agreed to place a protective human wall of 5,000 Palestinian security officers around the settlements, which would be a buffer to an adjacent ring of Israeli soldiers. Palestinians, under the arrangements, will not enter these areas until all settlements and military installations have been dismantled. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has called Palestinians to act with restraint, and has asked Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad not to fire on the Israeli army or settlers during the disengagement process.
Why are so many Israelis against the disengagement plan?
Actually, about 60 percent of Israelis support disengagement, according to a recent poll by Tel Aviv University. Thirty percent of respondents were opposed.
While the majority support the plan, many Israelis feel that Gaza is part of the land of Israel, promised in the Bible to the Jewish people. Others view the issue more strategically, arguing that Israel is giving up territory without getting any peace guarantees or other reciprocal moves from the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who resigned from Sharon's Cabinet last week in protest of the pullout, said the withdrawal would make Gaza "a huge base for terror."
Israel has never withdrawn from territory it won in war without a peace agreement. The Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s never specified what was to happen with settlements in the West Bank and Gaza because that and other thorny issues were left to the final status talks, which fell apart in the fall of 2000. However, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, gave indications that Israel would eventually withdraw from Gaza and would annex large, heavily populated Israeli settlements in the West Bank, evacuating the small and remote ones.
The disengagement of four small settlements in the northern West Bank will mark the first time Israel is withdrawing settlements in that territory, not including "illegal settlement outposts" - often clusters of mobile homes - that several prime ministers have ordered removed.
Egypt, which had control of Gaza until the 1967 war, has become one of the most important players. It has agreed to send 750 police officers to the 8.6-mile border - the so-called "Philadelphia Route" - between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai. After the Egyptian deployment, the IDF would withdraw from the border. Egypt is also training a Palestinian force to patrol the settlements when Israel leaves. The renewal of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation signals a possible thawing in relations between the two countries.
The Bush administration is wholly supportive of the disengagement plan providing it's a step toward returning to the road-map for Middle East peace, which calls for a negotiated settlement to the conflict and an independent, democratic Palestinian state next to a secure state of Israel.
The US view is that one of the keys to the success of disengagement is strengthening the ability of Mr. Abbas to wield authority in Gaza after the pullout. In the past year, Palestinian militant groups have launched attacks on the PA's police and security forces, raising the specter of a struggle for power after Israel leaves. To help increase the capability of the PA to exercise control after the disengagement, the US has increased security assistance to Palestinian officials.
US donors are also paying $14 million in compensation for Jewish farmers who are leaving behind Gaza greenhouses that will be taken over by the Palestinians. The money was raised by James D. Wolfensohn, former World Bank president and the Bush administration's current Middle East envoy, who is donating $500,000 of his own money.
Israel has decided to destroy houses, schools, and synagogues in Gaza, but leave behind major infrastructure such as electricity, pipes, and roads.
Israel's decision to demolish the homes was mainly made for two reasons: Israel didn't want to leave behind homes that Palestinians could overrun, loot, or rush to fly the flag of Hamas in a sign of triumphalism.
Also, Israeli officials charged that the relatively large, single-family homes would not go to ordinary Palestinians, but to elite and senior members of the Palestinian security forces. Palestinian officials have agreed that the Israeli homes are not suited for the needs of Palestinians. Instead, Palestinians plan to build high-density apartment buildings in their place.
No agreement has been made yet on who will cart away the rubble after the demolitions, and this, as well as the environmental and financial costs, remains a point of contention.
So far, the parties have not been able to agree on whether there will be some kind of link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
As part of the Oslo Peace Accords in the mid-1990s some sort of "safe passage" between the two territories was planned for but never implemented. The PA says such a passageway is vital for economic recovery of Gaza. According to Reuters, talks are under way on the construction of a road or rail corridor between Gaza and the West Bank.
The Palestinians also want Israel to underscore that Palestinians can expect a substantial Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory - where larger Jewish settlements are expanding.
Palestinian and Israeli officials also have yet to come to any agreement on the rehabilitation of the Palestinian airport, the opening of a seaport, and, most important, a clear policy on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza.