About 9000 settlers are to leave the Gaza Strip and a corner of the West Bank next month under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to "disengage" Israel from fighting with the Palestinians.

Although Israeli ultranationalists condemn the pullout as a betrayal of Jewish claims on biblical land and a reward for a four-and-a-half-year Palestinian revolt, the government has reported a rise in the number of settlers applying for relocation packages.

Opening a caravan park to provide temporary housing in southern Israel for evacuees, the authorities handed keys to the red-roofed, air-conditioned trailers dubbed "cara-villas" to several families due to move in later in the week.

Half may stay

But Housing Minister Isaac Herzog said half of the settlers were likely to stay on in the narrow, coastal territory - defiance fuelling fears of confrontations during the pullout.

There is fear of clashes between
the settlers and the army

"Our working assumption is that around half of the families will, on the morning of the evacuation, still have forgone [state-funded relocation]," Herzog told Army Radio. "We are doing everything for this figure to be much less."

As of last week, data furnished by the government's Disengagement Authority showed that about 750 of 1800 families to be evacuated had applied for state funds.

Officials argue that many settlers have failed to come forward because they fear the censure of their neighbours. But some would-be evacuees accuse the government of foot-dragging.

Ultranationalists protest
 
Hundreds of ultranationalists have set up tent encampments in Gaza settlements to reinforce resistance to evacuation. The YESHA settler council has called for non-violent protests only, but Israeli officials say some mavericks could turn militant.

"Our working assumption is that around half of the families will, on the morning of the evacuation, still have forgone [state-funded relocation]"

Isaac Herzog,
Israeli Housing Minister

Failure to leave the settlements during a 48-hour grace period after eviction notices are served on 15 August could prove costly to recalcitrant settlers, cutting into packages totalling several hundred thousand dollars per family.

Under law, settlers still at home when security forces come to remove them, beginning on 17 August, will forfeit the right to receive a grant, ranging from 14,000 shekels to 27,000 shekels ($3100 to $6000) per family to cover moving expenses.

They will also risk losing another grant - 4800 shekels for each year of residence in a Gaza or northern West Bank settlement after the age of 21. For a couple with 20 years' residency, that could total almost 200,000 shekels.

Secret contact

A Disengagement Authority official said there have been secret contacts with settlers who have yet to apply officially for government funds.

Palestinians welcome Israeli withdrawal from occupied land they seek for a state but suspect Sharon of planning to leave them tiny Gaza while keeping West Bank settlement blocs.

The World Court has determined settlements Israel has built on land it captured from Jordan, Egypt and Syria in the 1967 war are illegal.