- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday he is preparing to evacuate nearly all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip if the U.S.-sponsored “road map” peace plan is abandoned.

The comments, which shocked his supporters and angered settlers’ groups, marked the first time that Mr. Sharon has identified specific legal settlements that might be abandoned since he broadly outlined a disengagement plan for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in December.

In an interview yesterday with a columnist from Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, Mr. Sharon said that he had instructed security advisers to prepare a plan to leave 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip.

About 7,500 Jewish settlers live in the heavily guarded enclaves in the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian population exceeds 1 million.

“It is my intention to carry out an evacuation — sorry, a relocation — of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold onto anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements,” Ha’aretz quoted Mr. Sharon as saying.

“I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza.”

Mr. Sharon offered no hint on the timing of such a move, which will be the focus of talks with the U.S. administration during a coming visit to Washington. A political analyst from Israel’s state-run radio speculated that the withdrawal would be put off until after the U.S. presidential elections.

Throughout Mr. Sharon’s three years in office, he has refused to discuss the specifics of the territorial concessions that he is prepared to make, leaving many in doubt about his sincerity.

The frankness of the latest remarks — reminiscent of a plan supported by the opposition Labor Party in a disastrous parliamentary-election campaign last year — sent shock waves through the political system.

“People on the right who hoped it was only talk [meant] for the Americans know that now he means business,” said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University. “There’s a sort of escalation, and he’s emphasizing it more and more in practical terms.”

Mr. Sharon has yet to make good on a promise in December to dismantle dozens of illegal settler outposts in the West Bank. The looming possibility of an indictment on bribery charges also has begun to undermine his credibility.

Eli Farkhan, founder of the northern Gaza Strip settlement Eli Sinai, said he didn’t think Mr. Sharon will order an evacuation. Still, the comments were damaging to the settlers’ cause, he said.

“These statements don’t help the security of the settlers or the standing of the state. It’s a miserable statement,” he said. “The message is not to believe in laying down the foundations for a home in this land.”

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat derided Mr. Sharon’s commitment to a withdrawal.

In Gaza earlier yesterday, a Palestinian militant who had lost his legs and an arm to an Israeli tank shell a year ago was killed in a gunbattle with Israeli soldiers who came to arrest him, Reuters reported.

Yasser Abu al-Aesh, a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad, was one of four Palestinian gunmen killed in the border town of Rafah.

Meanwhile, in rare Israeli incursion into Bethlehem, soldiers killed Muhammad Abu Ouda, a Hamas militant who Israel accused of ordering the suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Thursday that killed 11 persons.

Mr. Sharon defended the principles of the Gaza Strip withdrawal during a meeting yesterday with parliament members from his Likud Party.

The prime minister thinks his plan for a unilateral withdrawal would spare Israel from the dangers of a political and security vacuum in the absence of a viable peace process, spokesman Raanan Gissin said. But a decision to evacuate settlements without a peace treaty threatens to break up Mr. Sharon’s ruling coalition.

“Shame on the prime minister for publicizing such a program to destroy Jewish homes just a few days after 11 victims were murdered near his home,” said Tourism Minister Benny Elon, a champion of the settlers and a member of the far-right National Union Party. “The prime minister must understand that the national camp will not permit a pullback from the land.”

Early last month, more than 100,000 settlers and conservative allies threatened to bring down the government during a demonstration in Tel Aviv to protest Mr. Sharon’s plans for a withdrawal.

The protest was attended by many Likud lawmakers, who, political analysts believe, hold the key to Mr. Sharon’s political future.

“My position on this issue is clear and hasn’t changed,” said Foreign Minister Sivlan Shalom. “Unilateral steps won’t lead to a reduction of the conflict and friction with the Palestinians, and may even intensify it.”

Mr. Sharon probably would get support from the opposition Labor Party for a unilateral withdrawal, but Labor parliament members said Mr. Sharon could win them over only with action on the ground.

“A prime minister needs to execute, and on that, he hasn’t even evacuated one outpost,” Labor lawmaker Ohir Pines-Paz said.

“We’re tired of talking about this without end. As long as we hear only talk, we can only be skeptical.”

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