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Sharon advised to exit nearly all of gaza

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Sharon Advised to Exit Nearly All of Gaza
Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM (AP)--Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national security team has recommended that Israel withdraw from virtually all of the Gaza Strip and up to 24 West Bank settlements, a government official said Thursday.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said earlier he would welcome a Gaza withdrawal, but he insisted it would have to be accompanied by a simultaneous pullback from the West Bank.

U.S. diplomats sought more details on the proposal by Sharon's advisers. The Americans, who are scheduled to meet Sharon later Thursday, arrived amid a flurry of diplomatic activity. Israel's foreign minister traveled to Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday for talks about the Gaza plan, and the Israeli and Palestinian premiers are expected to hold their first summit next week.

Meanwhile, Israel's Supreme Court extended a freeze on construction of a 15-mile section of the country's contentious West Bank separation barrier until Wednesday.

The court initially suspended construction in the area, around eight Palestinian villages northwest of Jerusalem, on Feb. 29 at the request of a civil rights group representing Israeli and Palestinian opponents of the barrier.

The opponents say the barrier will severely disrupt the lives of 30,000 Palestinians in the area. But Israel says it is necessary to block suicide bombers.

The proposed Gaza withdrawal is part of Sharon's ``unilateral disengagement'' plan, aimed at separating Israel and the Palestinians if there is no peace deal.

Sharon has said his plan also will include an exit from part of the West Bank, removing some Jewish settlements and imposing a boundary on the Palestinians. However, he has released few details.

A senior Israeli official confirmed on condition of anonymity that the National Security Council has drawn up a preliminary plan to evacuate most Gaza Strip settlements and up to 24 in the West Bank. Details of the plan first appeared in the Maariv daily newspaper.

The official emphasized that no decisions have been made on the scope or timing of a withdrawal. The final decision will depend on Egyptian, Jordanian and U.S. reactions to the plan, the official said.

Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, traveled to Egypt seeking to rally support for the withdrawal from President Hosni Mubarak. Shalom is the highest Israeli official to visit Egypt since Sharon took office in early 2001.

Israel wants Egypt, which borders Gaza, to take a role in maintaining security after a withdrawal. But Shalom told reporters after the meeting that ``Israel is not looking for Egypt to take responsibility for Gaza.''

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said Thursday that Egypt ruled out sending troops into Gaza to enforce quiet. Stepping in to police the area could leave Egypt open to criticism from the Arab public and put it in the uncomfortable position of being an occupying force.

However, Maher said Egypt will ensure its own borders are well-protected against any spillover of violence. He did not elaborate.

Israel frequently carries out military incursions along the border, which it says are aimed at weapons smugglers.

Sounding upbeat after the meeting, Shalom said he and Mubarak spoke about the withdrawal plan and ``how to build an infrastructure of peace on all levels.''

Palestinians have responded cautiously to a Gaza withdrawal. They fear Sharon wants to entrench Israel in the parts of the West Bank it does not leave, frustrating their hopes of creating a state in all of Gaza and the West Bank with a capital in east Jerusalem.

``We welcome any simultaneous Israeli withdrawal from any part of our land. I mean from Gaza and the West Bank ... to reach a full withdrawal from all of our territories,'' Arafat told the Palestinian Legislative Council on Thursday.

However, the withdrawal ``should be through talks between the two parties and the framework of the road map,'' he said, referring to a stalled U.S.-backed peace plan aiming for an independent Palestinian state by next year.

The visiting American envoys are Assistant Secretary of State William Burns; Stephen Hadley, deputy director of the National Security Council; and Elliot Abrams, a council Middle East specialist.

Israeli officials also discussed the plan in Washington last week with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The withdrawal plan also will be brought up at a summit between Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia tentatively scheduled for next week, Israeli officials said on condition of anonymity. Final details of the meeting will be worked out Sunday.

AP-NY-03-11-04 1348EST

Copyright 2004, The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP Online news report may not be published, broadcast or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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