Sharon says he'll empty Gaza Strip of settlers

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday he wants to remove nearly all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip without waiting for a peace deal, outlining his go-it-alone plan and prompting threats from far-right allies to bring down his government.

Sharon, for nearly three decades the most powerful patron of the settlement movement, told his Likud Party in a closed-door meeting Monday that the 17 settlements he wants removed are a "security burden" and a "source of continuous friction."

The prime minister's about-face was met by widespread skepticism, both from Palestinian leaders and Israeli politicians. Critics noted that Sharon's government has failed at a presumably easier task, the dismantling of dozens of small settlement outposts, as required by a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Others said Sharon may be trying to deflect attention from his legal troubles. Sharon is to be questioned again by police Thursday in a widening corruption probe.

The Gaza settlements, home to about 7,500 Israelis, have been frequent targets of Palestinian militants during more than three years of violence. Infiltration attempts and rocket attacks come almost daily. An estimated 1.3 million Palestinians live in Gaza.

There was confusion about whether any settlements would remain in Gaza under Sharon's plan.

Although Sharon indicated he was referring to all the settlements, his spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said late Monday that three at the northern tip of the territory, close to Israel, would remain. Though most lists count 17 settlements, Gissin said there were 21.

Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for the dovish Israeli Peace Now group, said there are 20 official settlements in Gaza and "one or two" unofficial sites.

Gissin said there were three plans but that none called for removing all the settlements. The ones in northern Gaza would remain, he said, because "there is not the element of friction" there. Earlier, Sharon had been quoted as saying it's possible all Israelis would have to leave Gaza.

Sharon has been preparing Israelis for what he said would be unilateral measures in the West Bank and Gaza, including redeploying Israeli troops, uprooting some settlements and imposing a boundary on the Palestinians.

Sharon has said he would go ahead once he concludes there is no point in negotiating with the Palestinians. Late Monday, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said the government was aiming for June or July to begin implementation.

However, Monday's announcement took Israel by surprise.

It began when Sharon invited a senior Israeli columnist, Yoel Marcus from the Haaretz daily, to his official Jerusalem residence to outline his plans for Gaza.

Marcus, one of Sharon's staunchest critics, quoted the prime minister as telling him that he has "given an order to plan for the evacuation" of the settlements.

Haaretz ran excerpts from the interview on its Web site just before the start of a closed-door meeting of Likud legislators. At the meeting, Sharon confirmed what he told Haaretz, but said the plan hasn't been finalized.

"I don't know if it will be done in one go, or gradually, but over the course of time, it will not be right to continue Jewish settlement in Gaza," a Likud official quoted Sharon as saying at the meeting.

Sharon said he would seek the approval of parliament and would also consult with President Bush, participants in the Likud meeting said.

The present government would likely collapse if Sharon ordered the removal of any settlements. Not only are most of the members of his own party opposed, so are two of his three coalition partners.

Sharon's coalition controls 68 seats in the 120-member parliament, and the departure of the two far-right parties, the National Union and the National Religious Party, could force snap elections.

The NRP "cannot participate in a Cabinet that destroys the settlements," said NRP lawmaker Shaul Yahalom. "We shall do everything possible to replace this prime minister," the National Union's Zvi Hendel said.

In parliament, several coalition lawmakers expressed their displeasure with Sharon by abstaining in a routine no-confidence vote brought by opposition parties. The vote was 42-41, just narrowly in Sharon's favor. Though it would take an absolute majority of 61 to bring down the government, the slim majority embarrassed Sharon.

Analyst Hanan Crystal said Sharon might be trying to force dissolution of his government in an attempt to halt the police inquiry.

"It doesn't matter why he is doing it, he means business. It may be just for survival, but now he means business," Crystal said.

However, Ophir Pines-Paz, secretary of the opposition Labor Party, said he doubted Sharon planned to dismantle settlements. "It's virtual, it's science fiction," he said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he believes Sharon's announcement is a public relations stunt. "If Mr. Sharon intends to pull out of Gaza and settlements in Gaza, no Palestinian will stand in his way," he said.

Palestinians want to set up a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and demand removal of all 150 settlements.

Also Monday, five Palestinian militants were killed in fighting with Israeli troops -- four in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah and one in the West Bank.

In Rafah, the army said troops shot back after coming under fire as they tried to arrest Islamic Jihad leader Yasser Abu Ayish. Palestinian witnesses said Abu Ayish, his brother and militants from Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades were killed.

In the West Bank, the soldiers shot and killed a Hamas militant in a refugee camp near Bethlehem. The camp was home to a suicide bomber who killed 11 people in Jerusalem last week.

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