Israel would launch a massive ground operation if Palestinian militants fire on Israeli soldiers and settlers during next month's Gaza pullout, the deputy defense minister said Sunday.
In such a scenario, the evacuation of settlers would be halted for 10 days to two weeks while Israeli forces occupy Palestinian towns near the Jewish settlements, said Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim.
Israel is set to evacuate all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four more in the West Bank in mid-August. The pullout is set to last some four weeks.
Israeli officials tell CBS reporter Robert Berger in Jerusalem that half of the more than 8,000 Gaza settlers slated for evacuation are complicating matters by refusing to leave their homes. That means the army will have to remove them by force. The settlers who refuse to leave could lose tens of thousands of dollars in government compensation, but many have vowed to resist until the bitter end.
Boim told Israel Radio the ground operation would be massive, on the scale of the "Defensive Shield" offensive of 2002, in which Israel reoccupied West Bank towns in response to a series of suicide bombings.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly warned in recent days that the military would respond harshly to Palestinian fire during the withdrawal. However, Boim's comments marked the first time the scope of a military offensive was being outlined.
In the event of Palestinian fire, "we would stop the withdrawal, we would deliver a harsh strike, a large-scale operation," Boim told the radio.
Such an operation would be "about the size of Defensive Shield, meaning about 10 days to two weeks of a heavy strike against terror, to uproot it," Boim said.
The focus of the strike, by a force of about 12,000 -15,000 troops, would probably be the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis which lies next to the main bloc of settlements, Boim said.
Israel is coordinating the security aspect of the pullout with the Palestinians, hoping Palestinian security will be able to prevent militants from firing on the thousands of soldiers and settlers who will be involved in the pullout.
But the Palestinians have warned that their forces are woefully ill-equipped in all major areas, including arms, ammunition, transportation and communications.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Sunday that Israel should weigh giving the Palestinian police arms and ammunition to fight the Palestinian militant groups and ensure quiet during the withdrawal. "If we tell the Palestinians to combat Hamas, we have to hear what their needs are," Peres told Israel Radio.
Israel fears the weapons will fall into the hands of the militant groups and be used to attack Israelis.
Also Sunday, in a sign of the approaching withdrawal, several families from the northern Gaza settlement of Nissanit received keys for temporary housing after the evacuation.
The government has set up a camp of 164 mobile homes at the community of Nitzan in southern Israel for those who will be evacuated.
But settlers complained the mobile homes, which look like regular houses with red-tile roofs and are surrounded by newly planted grass, are too small for their needs.
"We are five people who have to live here, there is no room, they are very small," said Maria Halfon, standing outside her new home.
The settlers are to live in the mobile homes for two years until permanent housing sites are built for them. "It's going to be like a refugee camp," Halfon said.
The government has been trying to encourage setters to leave before the pullout. However, many have vowed to stay and resist the move.
Housing Minister Isaac Herzog said that the government expects half of the 9,000 settlers to leave before the day of the pullout. "Our working assumption is that about half of the residents will still be holed up on the morning of the evacuation," Herzog told Israel Army Radio.