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Sharon says gaza settlements to be evacuated { February 2 2004 }

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Sharon Drops Bombshell: Gaza Settlements to Go
Mon February 02, 2004 07:51 AM ET

By Matt Spetalnick
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday he planned to evacuate 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, dropping a political bombshell that stunned friends and foes alike.

"I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza," the right-wing prime minister, once considered the godfather of the settlement movement, told the Haaretz newspaper.

It was the first time Sharon had revealed a plan for such a far-reaching withdrawal from territories Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war, and sparked immediate outrage from settler leaders.

The surprise announcement came amid a surge in Israeli- Palestinian violence over the past week that has cast further doubt on the chances of reviving a U.S.-backed peace "road map."

Despite the bloodshed, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said preparations were under way for his first summit with Sharon since taking office in November.

Shortly after Qurie spoke, Sharon's words appeared on the Haaretz Web site. "I have given the order to plan for the evacuation of 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip," Sharon was quoted as saying.

His plan called for evacuation of all but two or three of the Gaza settlements. The largest concentration of settlements is in the West Bank, where Israel has more than 120 enclaves.

In excerpts from the interview on the Web site, he gave no timeframe for the move, but said he intended to present his plan to President Bush during his visit to Washington later this month.

"It has to be done with American agreement and support. We need their support," Sharon said.

"We are talking of a population of 7,500 people. It's not a simple matter. We are talking of thousands of square kilometers (miles) of hothouses, factories and packing plants. People there who are third-generation," he said.

"The first thing is to ask their agreement, to reach an agreement with the residents... it's not a quick matter, especially if it's done under fire."


Sharon had spoken in recent months only in vague terms about uprooting some of the more isolated settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, under a disengagement plan he has threatened to impose on the Palestinians should the "road map" fail.

He has made clear, however, that such an arrangement would leave Palestinians with less land for a future state.

Sharon's earlier comments about removing settlements had drawn angry protest from settler leaders, but the reaction to Monday's announcement bordered on outrage.

A spokesman for the Gaza settlers called Sharon's statement "miserable" and said Israel's nationalist camp would "make every effort... to cut short Sharon's term as prime minister through legal means."

"We call on Sharon to immediately return to his old, good positions and not to bring another tragedy to the people of Israel through the expulsion of Jews from their homes."

In violence early Monday, a Palestinian militant who lost his legs and an arm to an Israeli tank shell a year ago battled soldiers who came to arrest him in a Gaza Strip raid that ended with him being killed along with three other gunmen.

Some 10,000 mourners, including dozens of gunmen firing into the air, later marched in funeral processions for the four gunmen. "Sharon, prepare body bags. Blood for blood," the crowd chanted.

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