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Support for Gaza pullout dips in Israel
Updated: 2005-06-03 18:50

JERUSALEM- Public support in Israel for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout plan has fallen to its lowest level, 50 per cent, since he announced the proposal last year, an opinion poll showed on Friday.

Despite the drop, which the Maariv/Teleseker survey attributed to public weariness over the controversy the plan has generated, Sharon's popularity rating rose seven percentage points to 46 percent since the previous poll two weeks ago.

Israel intends to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 in the West Bank starting in mid-August under Sharon's plan to disengage from conflict with the Palestinians.

Opinion polls had put support for the withdrawal, approved by Israel's parliament, at around 60 percent.

The latest survey noted that while the figure now stood at 50 percent, only 38 percent of those polled said they opposed the pullout, with 12 percent undecided.

Settlers and their supporters have been waging a protest campaign against the withdrawal, saying the evacuation of settlements would reward Palestinian militants after more than four years of violent conflict with Israel.

Commentary accompanying the poll said the blocking of main roads in Israel by opponents of the plan several weeks ago had caused a public backlash that boosted support for the pullout at the time.

But it said the latest figures showed that "in the long-term ... a weary public is asking itself why it needs this headache, and it is beginning to have regrets about the whole disengagement idea."

Israel's cabinet and parliament have already approved the plan for the first removal of settlements from occupied land Palestinians want for a state. Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.

Sharon faces future cabinet votes to authorize the start of each of the four stages of the pullout, but with the support of the left-center Labour Party offsetting opposition by rebel ministers of his Likud faction, he is guaranteed a majority.

Palestinians have welcomed the withdrawal but fear that Sharon's pledge to hold on to large West Bank settlement blocs under any future peace deal would deny them a viable state.

The poll surveyed 531 Israelis this week and has a margin of error of 4.1 percent.

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