Israel Begins Final Stage of Gaza Pullout

JERUSALEM -- Israel forged ahead with the final phase of its landmark Gaza evacuation Wednesday, closing a crucial border security deal and tying up other problematic loose ends so it could wind up its 38-year occupation of the coastal strip by mid-September.

Israel finished removing 15,000 settlers and supporters from Gaza and some of the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, two weeks ahead of schedule.

But the government also issued orders to seize Palestinian land to build a separation barrier that would in effect annex the West Bank's largest settlement to Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that in exchange for the Gaza pullout, Israel plans to strengthen its hold on major West Bank settlement blocs.

Palestinians condemned the construction of the barrier around the Maaleh Adumim settlement, home to 30,000 Jews, and accused Israel of quietly issuing the land-confiscation order while the world's attention was focused on the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel emptied the last of its 21 civilian settlements on Monday, but still has to finish razing settler houses, dismantle military installations and pull out troops.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Wednesday he expected that final phase to be completed around mid-September. And he confirmed that Israel had reached an agreement to turn over control over a volatile stretch of the Gaza-Egypt border to 750 Egyptian troops.

The transfer of border supervision to the Egyptians is key to ending Israel's Gaza occupation. The agreement had been held up by Israeli concerns that weapons and explosives would be smuggled across the border from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula into Gaza. "This agreement ultimately gives comprehensive -- and I emphasize comprehensive -- responsibility to the Egyptians regarding the prevention of weapons smuggling in the Philadelphi corridor in tunnels and above ground, into the Gaza Strip," Mofaz told Army Radio.

Israel and the Palestinians, meanwhile, have reached an agreement on disposing rubble from the homes bulldozers have been demolishing in evacuated settlements since late last week, officials from both sides said Wednesday.

Under the deal, Israel is to demolish all homes in the empty settlements and remove asbestos and any other hazardous materials to sites inside Israel. The Palestinians are to dispose of the remaining rubble, keeping reusable materials for themselves to build a seaport and new houses. Israel is to foot the estimated $30 million bill.

While Israel was busy winding up its Gaza occupation, it was making moves to cement its grip on the West Bank. The Justice Ministry said orders had been issued to seize Palestinian-owned land -- some of it inhabited -- so it could build its West Bank separation barrier around Israel's largest Jewish settlement.

The loop around Maaleh Adumim, just outside Jerusalem, would be part of a 680-kilometer complex of walls, electric fences and trenches that Israel is building along and inside the West Bank.

Amos Gil, executive director of Ir Amim, an Israeli group monitoring the barrier's construction, said the Maaleh Adumim confiscation would seize about 60 square kilometers of land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

"Such decisions will only serve to undermine any efforts to resume [peace] negotiations," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official.

Samir Huleileh, secretary of the Palestinian Cabinet, urged the international community to intervene. Officials are preparing to challenge the expropriation orders in Israeli courts, he said.