- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet approved a compensation plan yesterday for settlers who will be uprooted by Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, handing the prime minister an important victory two days before a showdown in parliament over the pullout.

Meanwhile, a team of Tunisian doctors examined Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — who is recovering from the flu — and pronounced him “OK,” despite speculation he may be suffering from something more serious.

The compensation program, approved 13-6, is a key part of Mr. Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” plan, which calls for a complete withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements next year.

The Cabinet victory, though expected, gave Mr. Sharon important momentum in the run-up to a far more important test tomorrow, when the Knesset votes for the first time on the entire withdrawal plan. Mr. Sharon is expected to win that vote as well, but he needs a strong majority to marginalize opponents.

“The train has left the station; the implementation is under way,” government spokesman Raanan Gissin said of Mr. Sharon’s plan. “After the Knesset vote on Tuesday, we will be in an irreversible process.”

Even if Mr. Sharon wins the vote tomorrow, parliament and the Cabinet will have to vote at least once more — and perhaps several more times — to approve actual evacuations, giving the plan’s highly organized opponents more chances to torpedo it.

Mr. Sharon’s government also might fall on other issues, including the budget, which could deal a fatal blow to the withdrawal plan.

The Cabinet vote yesterday endorsed guidelines for compensating the estimated 8,800 settlers slated to be forced from their homes next year.

The plan would pay affected settler families $200,000 to $350,000. Mr. Sharon hopes settlers will accept cash advances — which could total up to one-third of the final compensation payout — to leave well ahead of the official evacuation, heading off confrontations between settlers and troops.

The Cabinet also approved penalties, including prison terms, for settlers who resist evacuation orders. The guidelines will be written into a bill and sent to parliament.

Five Likud ministers voted against the compensation plan yesterday, and nearly half the party’s 40 lawmakers are expected to oppose Mr. Sharon tomorrow, forcing him to rely on support from moderate opposition parties.

Meanwhile, an internal Israeli government assessment obtained by the Associated Press found that even after a pullout, Israel will be considered the occupying power in Gaza and will remain legally responsible for the territory.

Because Israel would maintain control over Gaza’s border crossings, coastline and airspace, international law will continue to hold the Jewish state responsible for the territory, the report said.

However, Israel eventually could cede these controls if Palestinians stop launching attacks from Gaza, Mr. Sharon told the Cabinet yesterday.

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