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Sharon's new 'disengagement' plan has four stages

Thursday, May 27, 2004

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's revised "unilateral disengagement" plan has four stages, replacing a proposal for a one-step pullout from the Gaza Strip, an Israeli official said Wednesday.

Sharon is to present the new formula to Cabinet ministers today, ahead of a Cabinet debate Sunday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He declined to give details of the four stages.

In Gaza early today, meanwhile, three Israeli tanks and a bulldozer entered Palestinian territory outside the town of Deir el-Balah and destroyed three Palestinian houses, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.

The military said an operation was in an area where militants operate. On Wednesday, two Israeli soldiers were slightly wounded in a Palestinian rocket attack nearby, and soldiers destroyed a rocket launcher on the roof of a building where Palestinians were living.

Media reports indicate the disengagement process would start with evacuating three or four isolated settlements in the Gaza Strip. That would be followed by removal of the other Gaza settlements, a military redeployment in Gaza and evacuation of four small settlements in the northern West Bank.

The order of the steps is not known, nor is the timetable for implementing them, though it is not expected to be quick. Sharon has pledged to complete construction of a separation barrier before making any moves in the West Bank, and that is about a year away.

Israel says it needs the barrier to stop Palestinian suicide bombers and other infiltrators who have killed hundreds of Israelis during more than three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Palestinians object to the route, which dips deep into the West Bank to enclose main Jewish settlements.

Sharon's Likud Party turned down his original plan in a referendum on May 2, though it had U.S. backing. After the party veto, the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators -- the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- also endorsed the pullout plan.

Palestinians have been ambivalent about the proposal, demanding coordination with the Israelis over a withdrawal but welcoming, in principle, any Israeli evacuation of the Palestinian areas.

Sharon has said he would coordinate the pullout with the United States and Egypt but has no intention of discussing it with the Palestinians. Sharon contends the Palestinian leadership, especially Yasser Arafat, is involved in violence against Israel and has failed to take any steps to rein in militant groups.

Analysts say the revised plan will cause Sharon as much trouble as his original one, because opponents object to evacuating settlements. They would just as vigorously oppose a blueprint for removing a few at a time as they would a one-step program.

Cabinet approval of the new plan is far from assured. Ministers from Sharon's Likud Party who grudgingly backed the plan before the referendum withdrew their support, saying they were obligated by the nonbinding vote. Party members turned the plan down by a margin of about 60 to 40 percent.

The idea of Sharon and the Likud leading a drive to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Palestinian areas was jarring to many and unbelievable to others.

In a series of Cabinet posts over more than two decades, Sharon has been the primary mover in building and expansion of settlements, to the delight of his party, which holds to an ideology claiming all the areas now under Israeli control and rejecting creation of a Palestinian state.

Agreeing to put a settlement removal plan to a party vote is considered one of Sharon's biggest political blunders. Public opinion polls show that up to two-thirds of the electorate support the proposal.

Promoting his failed original plan, Sharon said there is no future for 7,500 Jewish settlers among 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and the 21 settlements there must be sacrificed to assure the existence of settlements in the West Bank, where more than 200,000 Jews live in about 150 settlements.

In another development, the annual report of Amnesty International charged Israel with collective punishment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2003, when more than 600 Palestinians were killed. It also said about 200 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks. The report was released Wednesday.

The "collective punishment" label was applied to Israel' destruction of Palestinian houses and farmland. Israel has a policy of destroying the houses of families of suicide bombers as a punishment and deterrent measure.

Also, over the past two weeks, Israeli forces knocked down dozens of Palestinian houses in the Rafah refugee camp in a large-scale operation aimed at finding weapons-smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border.

The Israeli government had no immediate comment on the report.

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