- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel could eventually relinquish more West Bank settlements, beyond the four to be dismantled in the coming weeks, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an interview published yesterday.

Asked whether Israel eventually would pull out of several small West Bank settlements, Mr. Sharon replied: “Not everything will be there. The issue will be raised during the final status talks with the Palestinians.”

But he reiterated that Israel would keep major West Bank settlement blocs in any peace deal.

“The settlement blocs will remain” in Israeli hands, Mr. Sharon said in an interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

“I never replied when asked what the boundaries of the settlement blocs are — and not because I’m not familiar with the map.”

The Israeli Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said it wants to complete the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank by Sept. 4, rather than in mid-September, the original target date. The forcible removal of settlers from their homes is to begin Wednesday.

The deadline was moved up even as military sources raised to 3,000 the number of persons they estimate have entered Gaza settlements to bolster resistance.

Also yesterday, a private economic foundation bought most of the greenhouses in Gaza settlements for $14 million and planned to hand them over to the Palestinians, said Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Israeli Yahad Party.

By keeping the greenhouses intact, the Economic Cooperation Foundation can ensure employment for thousands of Palestinians after the pullout, said Mr. Beilin, who heads the foundation.

Initially, the U.S. Agency for International Development had been negotiating with the Gaza settlers to buy the greenhouses.

However, the Palestinian Authority has said it would object to the use of government funds for such a deal, because it would be seen as paying compensation to the settlers.

When Mr. Sharon decided more than a year ago to quit Gaza, captured 38 years ago, he reasoned that would make it easier for Israel to hold on to the major West Bank settlement blocs, where most of the 240,000 settlers live.

President Bush endorsed the withdrawal in an interview broadcast Thursday on Israel TV. “The disengagement is, I think, a part of making Israel more secure and peaceful,” he said.

Tens of thousands of anti-pullout protesters filled a square in downtown Tel Aviv on Thursday night, vowing to block the withdrawal.

Settler leaders said they would send thousands toward Gaza next week to reinforce the resistance.

The Palestinian Authority is anxious for a smooth transfer that would prove its ability to control volatile Gaza after the Israelis depart.

Militant factions, however, are trying to create the impression that they are driving out the Israelis by force and daily have been firing rockets and mortars at Gaza settlements and nearby Israeli towns.

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