JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said
yesterday he wants to remove nearly all the Jewish settlements in
the Gaza Strip without waiting for a peace deal, outlining his
go-it-alone plan and prompting threats from far-right allies to
bring down his government.

Laura Wong
An Israeli soldier keeps watch yesterday at a machine gun post atop a guard tower overlooking the Jewish settlement of Netzarim and surrounding Palestinian lands, several kilometers inside the Gaza Strip. (AP PHOTO)

Sharon, for nearly three decades the most powerful patron of the
settlement movement, told his Likud Party in a closed-door meeting
yesterday that the 17 settlements he wants removed are a
“security burden” and a “source of continuous
friction.”

The prime minister’s about-face was met by widespread
skepticism, both from Palestinian leaders and Israeli politicians.
Critics noted that Sharon’s government has failed at a
presumably easier task, the dismantling of dozens of small
settlement outposts, as required by a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Others said Sharon may be trying to deflect attention from his
legal troubles. Sharon is to be questioned again by police Thursday
in a widening corruption probe.

The Gaza settlements, home to about 7,500 Israelis, have been
frequent targets of Palestinian militants during more than three
years of violence. Infiltration attempts and rocket attacks come
almost daily. An estimated 1.3 million Palestinians live in
Gaza.

There was confusion about whether any settlements would remain
in Gaza under Sharon’s plan.

Although Sharon indicated he was referring to all the
settlements, his spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said late yesterday that
three at the northern tip of the territory, close to Israel, would
remain. Though most lists count 17 settlements, Gissin said there
were 21.

Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for the dovish Israeli
Peace Now group, said there are 20 official settlements in Gaza and
“one or two” unofficial sites.

Gissin said there were three plans but that none called for
removing all the settlements. The ones in northern Gaza would
remain, he said, because “there is not the element of
friction” there. Earlier, Sharon had been quoted as saying
it’s possible all Israelis would have to leave Gaza.

Sharon has been preparing Israelis for what he said would be
unilateral measures in the West Bank and Gaza, including
redeploying Israeli troops, uprooting some settlements and imposing
a boundary on the Palestinians.

Sharon has said he would go ahead once he concludes there is no
point in negotiating with the Palestinians. Late yesterday, Vice
Premier Ehud Olmert said the government was aiming for June or July
to begin implementation.

However, yesterday’s announcement took Israel by
surprise.

It began when Sharon invited a senior Israeli columnist, Yoel
Marcus from the Haaretz daily, to his official Jerusalem residence
to outline his plans for Gaza. Marcus, one of Sharon’s
staunchest critics, quoted the prime minister as telling him that
he has “given an order to plan for the evacuation” of
the settlements.

Haaretz ran excerpts from the interview on its website just
before the start of a closed-door meeting of Likud legislators. At
the meeting, Sharon confirmed what he told Haaretz, but said the
plan hasn’t been finalized.

“I don’t know if it will be done in one go, or
gradually, but over the course of time, it will not be right to
continue Jewish settlement in Gaza,” a Likud official quoted
Sharon as saying at the meeting. Sharon said he would seek the
approval of parliament and would also consult with President Bush,
participants in the Likud meeting said.

The present government would likely collapse if Sharon ordered
the removal of any settlements. Not only are most of the members of
his own party opposed, so are two of his three coalition
partners.

Sharon’s coalition controls 68 seats in the 120-member
parliament, and the departure of the two far-right parties, the
National Union and the National Religious Party, could force snap
elections.

The NRP “cannot participate in a Cabinet that destroys the
settlements,” said NRP lawmaker Shaul Yahalom. “We
shall do everything possible to replace this prime minister,”
the National Union’s Zvi Hendel said.

In parliament, several coalition lawmakers expressed their
displeasure with Sharon by abstaining in a routine no-confidence
vote brought by opposition parties. The vote was 42-41, just
narrowly in Sharon’s favor. Though it would take an absolute
majority of 61 to bring down the government, the slim majority
embarrassed Sharon.

Analyst Hanan Crystal said Sharon might be trying to force
dissolution of his government in an attempt to halt the police
inquiry.

“It doesn’t matter why he is doing it, he means
business. It may be just for survival, but now he means
business,” Crystal said.

However, Ophir Pines-Paz, secretary of the opposition Labor
Party, said he doubted Sharon planned to dismantle settlements.
“It’s virtual, it’s science fiction,” he
said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he believes
Sharon’s announcement is a public relations stunt. “If
Mr. Sharon intends to pull out of Gaza and settlements in Gaza, no
Palestinian will stand in his way,” he said.

Palestinians want to set up a state in all of the West Bank and
Gaza Strip and demand removal of all 150 settlements.

Also Monday, five Palestinian militants were killed in fighting
with Israeli troops _ four in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah and
one in the West Bank.

In Rafah, the army said troops shot back after coming under fire
as they tried to arrest Islamic Jihad leader Yasser Abu Ayish.
Palestinian witnesses said Abu Ayish, his brother and militants
from Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades were killed.

In the West Bank, the soldiers shot and killed a Hamas militant
in a refugee camp near Bethlehem. The camp was home to a suicide
bomber who killed 11 people in Jerusalem last week.

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