"Palestinian police and national security have re-deployed around the settlements and along bypass roads," a senior Palestinian security official said.

"A total of 7500 security forces will be deployed over the next 24 hours, some of them in areas which they had vacated after September 28 2000," he said in reference to the day the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted.

Civilised manner

The deployment was planned in coordination with Israel to ensure that the evacuation of illegal settlements from the Gaza Strip takes place free of violence.

Palestinian forces say they are
trying to stop rocket attacks

An Israeli army spokesperson confirmed the Palestinian deployment had begun and that the Palestinians had entered areas they had not held since the start of the last intifada.

On Monday, those of the 8000 Gaza settlers who have not already left their homes will be given a two-day period to quit their houses voluntarily. On 17 August, Israeli security will remove recalcitrant settlers forcibly.

Both Israeli and Palestinian security sources said the main task of the Palestinian force would be to prevent rocket attacks by resistance groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the pullout.

Hamas leaders gather

For the first time in a decade, the founders and top political leaders of Hamas gathered on Saturday on the same stage, vowing to go on fighting Israel and claiming victory for the impending Israeli withdrawal.

Top Hamas leaders gathered for
the first time in a decade 

In a direct challenge to the Palestinian Authority, Hamas' top brass said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement could not be the sole decision-making body and insisted it has the right to possess arms, the latest sign that tensions are heating up in the days before Israel's Gaza pullout, set to begin on 15 August.

At Friday's Gaza sea-front event, Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan said all events would take place under the official Palestinian flag, a warning to Hamas which is planning its own military-style celebrations.

Taking responsibility for the Israeli pullout, Abbas promised the West Bank and Jerusalem would be next.

Committed to resistance

But the Hamas leadership - positioned in front of the group's logo and a green Islamic flag - challenged the Palestinian Authority statement, saying their armed struggle had led Israel to evacuate settlements, and vowed not to lay down their weapons until the Israeli occupation ends.

Unlike the Palestinian Authority, which wants to establish
an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with
east Jerusalem as its capital, Hamas is sworn to the
destruction of Israel.

Hamas said the pullout was a
result of their armed struggle

"Hamas remains committed to the choice of resistance as a strategic choice. Hamas remains committed to its military wing and its right to possess weapons," said Ismail Haniyye, a top Hamas leader.

Hamas does not plan to battle the Palestinian Authority, Haniyye said, but said: "Hamas rejects the idea of allowing any single party to monopolise the decision-making process."

On Saturday, US President George Bush went on Israel Television to call for the dismantling of "terrorist organisations" by the Palestinians, a key part of a Middle East peace road map backed by Washington.

Jerusalem security

Israel stepped up security at Jerusalem's holiest site on Saturday to prevent clashes between Muslim worshippers and Jewish extremists opposed to the imminent evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements.

Hundreds of extra police had already been deployed on Saturday around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, in a bid to foil plans by Jewish extremists to take over the holy site and draw Muslim worshippers into clashes.

Jewish extremists are planning
a mass gathering in al-Quds

Israel has voiced fear Jewish extremists would mount a last-ditch challenge to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial plan to withdraw from Gaza.

A mass gathering of Jewish ultra-nationalists is scheduled to take place on Sunday, prompting the Jerusalem mufti to urge Muslim faithful to flock to the mosque.

Jews will start marking the annual holiday of Tisha B'Av from Saturday evening.

The holiday - which commemorates the destruction of the first
and second Jewish temples - takes on special significance this year as it coincides with the start of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.