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Israel's Sharon says Gaza settlements could go
( 2003-12-17 08:56) (Agencies)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has told ministers ahead of a major policy speech that Israel must be ready to quit Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, senior political sources said on Tuesday.

Sharon, for decades the champion of the settler movement, has been firming up hints that Israel will have to leave parts of Gaza and the West Bank whatever the fate of a struggling U.S.-backed plan for peace with the Palestinians.

Egyptian truce mediators returned to Gaza on Tuesday for talks with Palestinian factions who earlier this month rejected a cease-fire crucial to the "road map," but Israel ruled out joining any truce as the militant groups demand.

Deepening doubt over whether Washington's plan could work, the political sources said Sharon had forecast moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie's government would last only six months and then Israel would have to act alone.

Sharon's comments came as he briefed ministers on Monday on a keenly awaited speech he is due to deliver to a conference on national security on Thursday.

"Whichever way you look at it, Jews won't be living in the Gaza Strip forever," one source quoted Sharon as saying. Local newspapers also carried the report.

The Gaza settlers are among the most exposed on land occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. Some 7,000 heavily guarded Jews live next to about 1.2 million Palestinians.

Recent polls suggest 60 percent of Israelis would support leaving all Gaza settlements, though any plan to uproot them would be likely to draw fire within Sharon's right-wing Likud.


Palestinians would welcome any withdrawal but are suspicious it could be under a go-it-alone plan that would also mean Israel setting borders for Palestinians on only part of the land they seek for a state.

Political sources said Sharon was likely to flesh out proposals for unilateral Israeli moves if the road map fails, but he would try to assuage concerns in the United States, the Jewish state's main ally, that anything could happen very soon.

Washington voiced support for evacuating Gaza settlements but again warned against unilateral steps with political impact.

Such moves could not "bring a solution to what is essentially a problem that needs to be negotiated, needs to be agreed by both parties," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

Hopes of reviving the peace plan have been lifted by a flurry of diplomacy. Israeli and Palestinian officials held U.S.-brokered economic cooperation talks on Monday, and efforts are under way to fix a meeting between Sharon and Qurie.

Talks between Palestinian factions in Cairo on a cease-fire with Israel failed earlier this month after objections from Islamic groups leading a suicide bombing campaign.

But while a senior Islamic Jihad leader emphasized there had been no change in the group's position, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced: "We are not willing to be party to a truce between the Palestinian Authority and the terrorist groups."

But the cycle of violence continued as Israeli troops shot 12 Palestinians with rubber bullets during a raid on the Balata refugee camp near Nablus on Tuesday.

The chief of Israel's Shin Bet security agency said the past 10 weeks of relative calm were deceptive and that three suicide bombings had been thwarted in the past 10 days alone.

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