Israel considers moving Gaza settlers to West Bank
Israel may move Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new plan to evacuate Gaza settlements, officials said on Friday.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned any relocation of Gaza settlers to the West Bank, demanding the removal of all settlements from the occupied territories.
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, back from talks in Washington with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, said any Israeli unilateral steps were still months away.
"It (the disengagement plan) will take months, it's not a matter of one day," Olmert told Israel's channel 1 television. "(President Bush) understands this is not a path (completed) with a push of a button and then everything works out the next morning."
Sharon's shock announcement on Monday that he planned to give up almost all Gaza settlements appeared already to have paid him political dividends, with his poll rating rising this week, as he confronts a bribery scandal that could unseat him.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that in a visit to Washington expected later this month or in March, Sharon would seek U.S. approval to expand West Bank settlement blocs that Israel might annex in a future peace deal with the Palestinians.
It said the prime minister -- a longtime champion of settlement building on occupied land -- would justify the request by explaining that West Bank enclaves would have to be expanded to accommodate some of the 7,500 Gaza settlers.
Sharon has proposed dismantling 17 of the 21 Gaza settlements and several of the more than 120 in the West Bank in a unilateral plan to separate from the Palestinians and draw a "security line" should a U.S.-backed peace plan fail.
He has made clear that any go-it-alone Israeli move would leave the Palestinians with less land than they want for a state in the West Bank and Gaza, captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
"Settlements in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace as much as the ones in Gaza Strip. They all must go," Erekat told Reuters. "The mere suggestion of trade-off between settlements in Gaza and the West Bank should be rejected by the Americans."
SETTLERS PROTEST OUTSIDE SHARON RANCH
A few hundred Gaza settlers demonstrated outside Sharon's Negev desert ranch near Gaza's border on Friday. They carried placards saying "Gush Katif is ours" -- referring to the largest enclave -- and shouted "Sharon we don't want you any more."
But the prime minister's poll standing has risen since he announced his Gaza evacuation plan.
A poll in the mass circulation daily Maariv showed that 39 per cent of those surveyed after Sharon unveiled the proposal on Monday were satisfied with his performance as prime minister compared with a record low of 33 per cent last week.
Fifty-two per cent favored a unilateral evacuation of all of Israel's 21 Gaza settlements, with 36 per cent opposed.
But with the powerful settlement movement already publishing advertisements in Israeli newspapers protesting against the proposal, Sharon's advisers put out the word that evacuation in Gaza could ultimately pour more settlers into the West Bank.
The Maariv poll appeared a day after police investigating the bribery case questioned Sharon for two and a half hours.
Sources close to the inquiry said the Israeli leader told the investigators he was unaware of his son Gilad's deals with a businessman friend charged with trying to bribe Sharon when he was foreign minister in the 1990s.
"The police investigation will wind up soon and the attorney general will make a final decision on the case in two months," a source close to the inquiry told Reuters.
Analysts say Sharon, who denies wrongdoing, would likely be forced from office if indicted.
Critics have suggested Sharon's Gaza plan was meant to divert attention from the scandal. Sharon has denied any self-serving motive in dropping his political bombshell.