Israeli troops and police on Tuesday started the largest dress rehearsal of the forcible removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.
The training ground, at a desert military base, was a mock Arab village initially built to train Israeli security forces in urban warfare against Palestinian militants. Next month, more withdrawal drills will be held at an Israeli communal farm which more closely resembles a Jewish settlement in Gaza.
Commanders said Tuesday that about 50,000 police and soldiers will participate in the removal of 9,000 settlers - 8,500 in Gaza and 500 in four small settlements in the northern West Bank. The forcible evacuation is to start Aug. 17, and last about three weeks.
Security forces will be deployed in several circles, with about 14,000 police and soldiers directly involved in the removal of settlers and the remainder protecting the frontline forces from possible Palestinian fire and securing the access roads to Gaza, where anti-pullout demonstrators are expected to stage rallies.
Each settler family will be evacuated by a 17-member force, the police commander of the operation, Haggai Dotan, said at the start of Tuesday's drill. "We will come early in the mornings to introduce ourselves, not say why we are there, but rather how we are going to carry out the evacuation," he said.
Yael Hartmann, an army spokeswoman, said the troops removing the settlers will not carry guns or batons, but will have non-lethal means, such as water cannons, for crowd control. It remains unclear whether settlers will voluntarily hand over their weapons, many of them army issue, before the withdrawal, or whether they will be disarmed by the security forces. Each unit will have several female officers to remove settler women, many of whom are religious and observe a strict separation of the sexes.
Settlers who climb onto rooftops to evade the security forces will be dragged into containers dangling from cranes, military officials said. Once a house has been emptied, the settlers' belongings will be packed into boxes and removed by private companies, reports the AP.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz observed Tuesday's drill at the mock village, spread out over flat desert terrain and surrounded by wire fence. Tents were pitched in the camp and groups of soldiers and police were being briefed by their commanders, sitting in the shade or leaning against walls of box-style buildings.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18