Sharon begins coordinating Israeli withdrawal from Gaza
JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday he has already begun coordinating a Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians and won't be deterred by increasingly belligerent opposition at home, including threats against him and his Cabinet ministers.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops killed two armed Palestinians who the army said approached a West Bank settlement. The two belonged to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a violent group with ties to Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. Militants said gunmen were from a local Al-Aqsa cell financed by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas who oppose a fledgling Israeli-Palestinian truce.
Al-Aqsa members indicated they would retaliate. They said the two men were guarding an abandoned Palestinian house near the settlement and were killed by Israeli troops without provocation.
Sharon, speaking at a carefully scripted news conference, said if Palestinian militants attack Israeli soldiers or settlers during the Gaza withdrawal, set to begin in July, Israel would respond harshly and may even call off the pullout.
Israel's parliament was to hold a final vote on the Gaza withdrawal today, with the plan expected to win overwhelming approval. Having lost the political battle, Jewish extremists have stepped up a campaign of intimidation against politicians who support the plan.
"In my entire life, I have never surrendered to threats, and I have no intention of starting now," Sharon said. "I conveyed this message to my fellow ministers and Knesset [parliament] members who are under pressure. The government will take all means necessary to ensure maximum security, and we will soon hold discussions on this subject."
Law enforcement officials have expressed growing concern about the threats. Officials in Israel's Shin Bet security service have said extremists might try to assassinate Sharon or attack a key Jerusalem site sacred to Muslims and Jews in a last-ditch attempt to stop the withdrawal.
Sharon said he does not fear for his life and will push ahead with the Gaza plan.
The prime minister originally envisioned the Gaza pullout as a unilateral move, but said Tuesday he is ready to work with the new Palestinian leadership.
"We already started to coordinate," he said. "I instructed to start coordination of our withdrawal ... from Gaza."
Sharon said he hopes coordination with Abbas will prevent Islamic militants from taking over once Israel leaves Gaza. Palestinian legislative elections are set for July, coinciding with the start of the pullout, and the militant Hamas group is seen as a strong challenger to Abbas' Fatah.
If Abbas fails to ensure calm during the pullout, Sharon warned Israel's reaction will be "very, very harsh and hard."
Sharon said his plan would solidify Israel's grip on main settlement blocs in the West Bank, which "will be part of the Jewish state in the future."
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat responded, "Israel must choose between settlements or peace. It cannot have both."
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, meanwhile, were deadlocked Tuesday over the terms of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Jericho, which had been expected this week. The Palestinians want Israel to hand over adjacent territory as well, including the village of Al Awja, and to dismantle army checkpoints in the area.
Israel wants to keep the main checkpoint at Jericho's entrance in place, and balks at giving up control over Al Awja because a highway used by Israelis runs through it.
Jericho is the first of five West Bank towns to be handed over in coming weeks, and the Palestinians consider it a test case. In the past, Israeli troops have temporarily withdrawn from some West Bank towns, but have kept roadblocks on the outskirts in place.
The removal of roadblocks would be the clearest sign to ordinary Palestinians that Abbas' new approach toward the conflict with Israel, including a clear condemnation of violence, is paying off. Israel fears that if it loosens control too quickly, there might be renewed attacks.