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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 July 2005, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Gaza withdrawal 'may start early'
An Israeli protester leaves Kfar Maimon after protests
Israeli protesters left on Thursday but promised to be back
Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip may be brought forward, the country's deputy prime minister says.

Ehud Olmert said he would consider an earlier withdrawal "favourably", to avoid further confrontation with settlers' protest groups.

A three-day protest march to Gaza was called off overnight, but not before 20,000 police and soldiers were deployed to block its entry.

Mr Olmert did not say when the pullout - set for mid-August - might now start.

Officials said the subject was likely to be discussed on Friday during a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

We will infiltrate through in small groups into Gush Katif, and in two weeks there will be 10,000 of us there
Bentzi Liberman
Settler leader

"Personally I am in favour of a more rapid withdrawal after the demonstrations of the last few days," Mr Olmert told public radio.

Initially the withdrawal was set to begin on 22 July, but it was put back to August, because the earlier date clashed with a three-week Jewish mourning period.

Critics said the delay was because preparations were taking longer than planned.

But the deputy prime minister said that the protesters had forced a change of approach.

"Given the way they have exploited the transition period leading up to the withdrawal for their protests, disrupting the life of the country in the process, I think that the government should change the date," he said.

Tactical retreat

Thousands of Israelis attended the protest march this week, which was meant to reach the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza, Gush Katif.

They set up camp on Monday evening in the village of Kfar Maimon in southern Israel, after marching about 3km from their starting point in Netivot, about 23km (14 miles) from the Gaza border.

Israeli soldiers stand watch at a fence near Gaza
Some 20,000 police and soldiers have been deployed around Gaza

On Wednesday the protesters, penned in for the past three days, demanded to be let through, but the police stood their ground.

In the evening organisers told supporters that the time was not right to confront the police, who had banned the march.

However Bentzi Liberman, head of the West Bank and Gaza Strip settlers' council, encouraged different tactics.

"We will infiltrate through in small groups into Gush Katif, and in two weeks there will be 10,000 of us there," he told protesters.

Some of the 6,000 demonstrators, many of them Orthodox Jews clad in the orange colour adopted by the protest movement, left in buses late on Wednesday.

Others remained in the makeshift campsite in Kfar Maimon for a third night, but most left in the morning, and police said only a few hundred remained.

Israeli police said between 250 and 300 people were arrested overnight for leaving the compound area and trying to slip into Gaza.

It was the biggest protest so far over the plans of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza, which most Israelis back.

The Israeli parliament again rejected proposals on Wednesday, which would have delayed the evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza.

About 630 settlers will also be removed from four small West Bank settlements.

Israel has occupied Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967.

About 400,000 Israelis live in the territories, in settlements deemed as illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

See tensions run high between protesters and the police

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