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Gaza strays set for rescue

ISRAELI ANIMAL welfare workers are poised to enter Jewish settlements in the infamous Gaza Strip after they have been emptied of people to round up stray dogs and cats, a lading Israeli animal welfare group has said.

Unarmed troops have begun forced evacuations of settlers under Israel's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip after nearly four decades of occupation. About half the 8,500 residents had already left by themselves, although a significant number have made a defiant stand and are being forcibly evicted by Israeli troops.

Avi Kuzi, who heads the Society to Protect Animals, said the animal welfare rescuers will move in once the 21 Gaza settlements are declared empty.

Israel is known for its many stray cats but some of the animals could be pets that got lost or were simply abandoned and left behind when owners left suddenly or were dragged away.

Tal Levy, evacuated last Thursday by Israeli troops and police from the Gaza settlement Kfar Darom, said he saw many stray animals in the area before he left.

"Horses, dogs and cats and even chickens were wandering the streets," he told Israel's NRG website, affiliated with its Maariv newspaper. "There is no one to feed or care for them."

Animals found in the settlements will be put in shelters in Israel until new homes are found for them. Israel has put out public service announcements calling on people to adopt them.

"We were promised that if they do decide to put even one animal to sleep, they would let us know 24 hours in advance. I will then go and rescue it," Kuzi said.

He said there was no clear estimate of the number of pets in the settlements and he expected to find mostly stray cats. Settlers had officially registered 150 dogs, but Kuzi said most of them probably left with their owners.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says his plan, under which four of 120 West Bank enclaves will also be removed, aims to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians. He said all Gaza settlers could be evacuated by Tuesday of this week.

About 1.4 million Palestinians live in densely packed and impoverished cities and refugee camps on the other side of the razor wire from the neat suburban-style settlements.

Israeli Settlers removed from Gaza enclaves will receive new homes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation, although many have been reluctant to leave their homes.

But the cost of the plan is high, not just for people who have been forced to leave their homes, many having been born there, but also for the innocent pets caught up in the politics of peace, just as they are so often caught up in the politics of war.