Sharon considers moving settlers to West Bank

Saturday, February 7, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is considering relocating Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip to areas of the West Bank he wants to annex in a final peace deal, his spokesman said Friday, a plan Palestinians denounced as a land grab and a violation of international law. The idea is one of several unilateral moves under discussion as part of Sharon's emerging "disengagement plan." First floated in December, it would move soldiers and settlers out of some Palestinian areas and impose a boundary that would fall far short of turning over all the territory the Palestinians want for a future state. The plan is to be finalized within two or three months, said Sharon spokesman Assaf Shariv. Moving Gaza Strip settlers to the West Bank is one of several options being considered, he said, refusing to elaborate.

Earlier this week, the Israeli leader announced plans to uproot 17 of Gaza's Jewish settlements and some in the West Bank over the next two years.

The Palestinians, along with the United Nations and many in the international community, say Israel's settlement of the West Bank and Gaza violates the Fourth Geneva Convention on warfare, which prohibits a ruling power from settling its own civilians in territory it occupies.

Israel's position is that the convention does not apply to territory it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, saying this land is disputed, not occupied.

On Friday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked Sharon to meet with him at U.N. headquarters in New York early next month during the prime minister's visit to the United States to clarify Israel's plans.

Annan said he had "a very frank and long conversation" with Sharon on Friday and he wanted to make sure that any Gaza withdrawal was just a first step to a wider Israeli pullback as part of a land-for-peace deal.

In violence Friday in the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, three Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were wounded in exchanges of fire. One of the Palestinians, a toddler, was in critical condition.

The United States is to send several top envoys to Israel in the coming weeks to discuss Sharon's disengagement plan, Shariv said. The visiting U.S. officials will likely be Mideast envoys William Burns and Elliot Abrams, though the trip has not been finalized, Shariv said.

Later this month or early in March, Sharon hopes to travel to Washington to present his ideas to President Bush.

"We are doing checks, including that the (Gaza) settlers will be evacuated to the settlements that will certainly remain with us under a final status agreement, such as Maale Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion," Shariv said, referring to the three largest blocs of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia welcomed the idea of dismantling settlements in Gaza, but said it's unacceptable to move Gaza settlers to the West Bank.

Qureia also said all West Bank settlements must be taken down.

"The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are an integral part of our homeland and we will not give up even one centimeter of our homeland," Qureia said.

Sharon's ideas have also outraged some in his own traditional right-wing support camp, especially the settler movement he vigorously supported in the past.

U.S. officials support the removal of settlements, but there is also unease over any unilateral moves.

In Washington on Thursday, Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, sought to reassure Secretary of State Colin Powell that Sharon's "disengagement plan" would not take the place of a peace deal that would establish a Palestinian state in some of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"They (the Americans) know that the prime minister is determined, that there is no way back," Olmert said in a Friday interview on Israel's Channel One TV following his return from Washington.

Sharon has said he will only move ahead if there is no progress on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. So far, both Israel and the Palestinians have failed to implement the first phase of the plan, which calls for Israel to halt settlement activity and for the Palestinians to rein in militants.

Some 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians in the crowded Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants have repeatedly attacked settler communities, especially during the last three years of fighting. Sharon's plan would leave at least three Gaza settlements in place, at least until a final peace deal.

In Gaza fighting near the town of Rafah, Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank missile that slammed into an army jeep, slightly wounding two soldiers, the military said.

A short time later as troops came to evacuate the wounded, militants fired two more missiles toward the group, but missed. Soldiers returned fire, but did not identify hitting any of the attackers, an Israeli army spokesman said.

Doctors at a Palestinian hospital said they were treating three people wounded by gunfire in the incident, including a 19-month-old boy, Mohammed Daher, who was shot in the neck and in critical condition.

An umbrella group of several militant factions said it carried out the attack and would release video footage.

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