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Sharon sets gov't shaking with Gaza pullout plan
( 2004-02-03 11:16) (Agencies)

Israel's ruling coalition was in turmoil on Tuesday after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stunned friends and foes alike by saying he planned to evacuate almost all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, talks to Gideon Saar, a Knesset, Israel's parliament, member during a Knesset session in Jerusalem Monday, Feb. 2, 2004. [AP]
Sharon, once considered the godfather of the settlement movement, said he had ordered plans to be drawn up for the evacuation of 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip.

"I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza," he told the Haaretz daily on Monday.

A close confidant, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the plan might be implemented as early as mid-year if talks with the Palestinians remained moribund and violence raged.

"I believe in June or July these things will begin being implemented," Olmert told Channel Two Television.

Sharon's plans, which were laid out to members of his right-wing Likud party in a meeting later on Monday, outraged several party members and pro-settler coalition partners.

Some suggested they would pull out of his government if he went ahead with the plan and several stormed out of a parliamentary no-confidence vote which Sharon won by an embarrassing one vote.

ut Sharon, who said he would take the proposal to Washington later this month, won praise from his closest ally.

"It's encouraging that Israel is considering bold steps to reduce tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in ways that will increase freedom of movement for Palestinians and reduce the burden on the Israeli military," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Sharon also intended to remove about 10 of the 120 settlements in the West Bank, Channel Two television reported.


It was the first time Sharon had revealed plans for such an extensive pullout from land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. "I am in shock," Likud legislator Yehiel Hazan said.

Members of the opposition and Palestinians were skeptical.

"Usually when the Israeli government speaks about evacuation of settlements, it aims only at public relations," Palestinian cabinet member Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

Sharon's plan, as detailed in an interview with the Haaretz daily, entails removal of all but three Jewish enclaves in the 139-sq-mile coastal strip, where over a million Palestinians live in poverty beside a few thousand settlers who control 21 per cent of the land.

Opinion polls show a large majority of Israelis are willing to part with Gaza settlements, which have no security value, require a heavy military presence to protect them and have little of the biblical significance that draws Jews to settle in the West Bank.

In excerpts from the interview, Sharon said his plan "has to be done with American agreement and support."

"We are talking of a population of 7,500 people. It's not a simple matter. We are talking of thousands of square km (miles) of hothouses, factories and packing plants," he said.

"The first thing is to ask their agreement, to reach an agreement with the residents...it's not a quick matter, especially if it's done under fire," he added.

A Gaza settler spokesman called Sharon's comments "miserable" and vowed that the nationalist camp would work "to cut short Sharon's term as prime minister through legal means."

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