JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel will increase investment in some
West Bank settlements even as it pulls out of the Gaza Strip,
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, giving a boost
to the “disengagement” plan ahead of a crucial vote by
members of the ruling party.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed removing all
settlements in Gaza, as well as four in the West Bank, and rapidly
completing a separation barrier Israel is building in the West
Bank. The 200,000 members of Sharon’s Likud party will vote
on the plan May 2.

Sharon meanwhile picked up support from Foreign Minister Silvan
Shalom for the Gaza withdrawal.

“We stand today facing the decision to evacuate some
settlements for the benefit of strengthening others,” Shalom
said. Sharon said last week that even under terms of a peace
treaty, Israel would insist on keeping five settlement blocs in the
West Bank.

Shalom’s linking the Gaza pullout and the West Bank
buildup reinforced Palestinian fears that the
“disengagement” plan is a ruse to ensure Israel’s
grip on the West Bank.

The Palestinian leadership said in a statement yesterday that
the Sharon plan would turn Gaza into “a big jail,” with
Israel still in control of all border crossings and air space.

Shalom’s backing further strengthened Sharon’s hand,
giving him a clear majority in his Cabinet ahead of the party
referendum.

In another setback for opponents, Likud yesterday canceled two
debates between Sharon and the leading Cabinet detractor, Uzi
Landau, who has denounced the plan as a reward for terrorism and
dangerous to Israel.

Landau, an effective public speaker, was hoping to persuade
Likud voters. Polls indicate a majority of the 200,000 Likud
members support the plan.

Netanyahu, a former premier and key Likud figure, announced his
backing for the plan on Sunday, pointing to assurances from
President Bush that Israel would not be asked to pull out of all of
the West Bank.

He said he was also satisfied with Sharon’s commitment to
finish a contentious separation barrier, which snakes into the West
Bank in parts to include some settlements, before the withdrawal
begins.

Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to the
settlements that will fall on the “Palestinian” side of
the barrier.

“There, we are going to invest. I myself am going to
approve hundreds of millions of shekels to invest in the
settlements beyond the main fence,” he said.

Netanyahu’s plan might violate the U.S.-backed “road
map” peace plan, which requires Israel to halt settlement
construction.

Last week, Attorney General Meni Mazuz ordered a freeze on all
settlement construction funds until an oversight committee is set
up to ensure the money is not diverted to unauthorized West Bank
outposts. The Finance Ministry said there was no contradiction,
since Netanyahu was referring to investment in security, not new
housing.

Netanyahu said an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza — where
7,500 Israelis live in one-third of the crowded territory and 1.2
million Palestinians live in the rest — was inevitable.

“Most of the population in the state of Israel wants to
leave the Gaza Strip. That’s a fact. The question is —
what does a leader do in such a situation?” he said.

“Sooner or later I think the wide desire among the nation
to leave the Gaza Strip would win,” he said, adding that U.S.
support for keeping some settlements was a key victory.

In Gaza City late yesterday, tens of thousands of Palestinians
gathered at a soccer stadium for a demonstration at the end of a
three-day period of mourning for Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi,
killed Saturday in an Israeli missile strike.

Islamic Jihad leader Abdullah Shami said Palestinians would keep
attacking Israel. “Assassination and killing give us more
power and determination,” he said.

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