The military issued the decree as the government set March 29 for a crucial parliamentary debate on the 2005 state budget. It must be passed by March 31 or Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be forced into a snap election, shelving the Gaza withdrawal.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas persuaded militants on Thursday to extend until year’s end a de facto truce, easing a threat of renewed attacks on settlers that might delay a pullout and brightening prospects for follow-up peace negotiations.
But as violence in Gaza has subsided, Israeli media have reported a wave of rightist Jews changing their address to settlements in the area in an effort to swell their 8,500 population and thwart troops assigned to evacuate them.
In a statement, the army said it had issued orders “prohibiting the relocation of Israeli citizens into the Gaza Strip,” namely 21 settlements earmarked for removal under Mr Sharon’s bid to “disengage” from conflict with the Palestinians.
Hundreds of Israelis have switched addresses to the Gush Katif settlement bloc, newspapers say, with the idea of dodging its expected closure to non-residents in the weeks before the launch of evacuations, due on July 20.
A spokesman for Gaza settlers condemned the army’s action.
“This is preparation … for creating ethnic cleansing here. It’s an immoral decision. Hundreds of thousands of (supporters) will come here whether they have identity cards with a (Gaza settlement) address or not,” Eran Sternberg said.
In a sign of progress in the withdrawal process, the army plans to pull out some non-combative equipment and minor structures that are “unrelated to security” from the Gaza Strip in two weeks, a military source said.
Mr Sharon regards Gaza, where the army is bogged down shielding scattered Jewish enclaves, as a bloody quagmire without strategic worth and polls show most Israelis agree it should be abandoned.
He aims to keep larger settlements in the West Bank under any future peace deal, fanning Palestinian fears for their ambition of creating a viable state in both territories — as envisaged by a US-devised peace plan.
But to Israeli rightists, some in Mr Sharon’s Likud party, any pullout amounts to “rewarding terror.” They have escalated a protest campaign involving rallies outside parliament, road blockades, prayer vigils and even threats to kill Mr Sharon.
One other serious hurdle on the road to “disengagement” looms in Israel’s budget, for which Mr Sharon still lacks a majority because a dozen mutinous Likud deputies in the Knesset (parliament) have vowed to reject it.
A senior government official said the budget session was set for March 29 to ensure enough time for debate before the March 31 deadline for passing the budget.
“Sharon will do everything in his power to get the budget passed, whether by additional votes in favour or through abstentions by those who would otherwise vote against,” he said.
The accord Mr Abbas struck with militants after 48 hours of talks in Egypt should advance his quest to revive negotiations with Israel on a Palestinian state after four years of fighting.
The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a loose bloc of militants not party to the deal, threatened on Friday to resume attacks, complaining it had not been invited to the talks.
Asked about the warning, Mr Abbas told reporters: “This is an internal matter we will deal with … (The truce deal) was a Palestinian success. I expect everyone to remain committed and there should not be violations.”