Bloody toll of intifada forces Sharon's hand on settlements

Ariel Sharon, who is known in Israel as the "godfather of the settlements", has finally accepted that the price of keeping them may be too high.

He presided over a massive expansion in the Palestinian heartland in the late 1970s, although, as defence minister, he also implemented the evacuation from Sinai under the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

But 40 months of suicide bombings and shootings of civilians and soldiers, which have killed nearly 1,000 Israelis and three times as many Palestinians, has convinced the prime minister that the two peoples must live apart.

He has warned in recent weeks that he is ready to take unilateral steps, including removing some settlements and imposing a boundary on the Palestinians, if there is no progress in stalled peace efforts by the summer.

These would, he said in a major policy speech in December, include redeployment of the Israeli army along new security lines "and a change in the deployment of settlements, which will reduce, as much as possible, the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population".

He has been impressed, like others on the Israeli right, by projections that Arabs will outnumber Jews between Jordan and the Mediterranean within two decades. He is also anxious to keep the Americans on his side by appearing to be flexible. But it remains to be seen whether he would give the Palestinians enough territory for a viable state.

Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Israelis would applaud the evacuation of settlements. They are tired of the 240,000 West Bank and Gaza settlers dictating the national agenda. The exposed Gaza settlements are increasingly perceived as a burden for which young soldiers resent having to risk their lives.

Battered by the intifada, many of the rank-and-file Gaza settlers would probably take the compensation and go. Some have already left. They moved there from the early Seventies for strategic and economic reasons. None of the Gaza sites has any religious or historic resonance for Jews.

Palestinians would celebrate evacuation as a victory for their struggle. Saeed Siyam, a Hamas leader, said: "Such a withdrawal, if it happens, will be as a result of the resistance."

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said: "If Israel wants to leave Gaza, no Palestinian will stand in its way."

The main resistance to Mr Sharon's plans came from his own supporters yesterday. The pro-settler National Religious Party, which has six MPs in the 120-member Knesset, threatened to pull out of the ruling coalition. Shaul Yahalom, one of its backbenchers, said: "We cannot participate in a cabinet that destroys settlements."

Mr Sharon faces opposition from his own ministers, four of whom were on the platform last month at a rally against uprooting settlements.

Silvan Shalom, his Foreign Minister, complained yesterday that he had not been informed of the Gaza plan. He said: "Unilateral steps will not lead to a lessening of the confrontation and the friction. They might make it worse."

But potential rebels are in no hurry to bring down the government while Mr Sharon is merely talking about evacuation. Analysts expect the coalition to disintegrate if and when he acts. Labour, the opposition party, has hinted that it would provide him with a "safety net". If the terms were right, it might even join the government.

Zvi Hendel, a hardline National Union MP who lives in a Gaza settlement, injected a note of scepticism, shared by many on the left. He suggested that the prime minister was trying to distract attention from a police investigation of allegations that he had accepted bribes from a property developer. Mr Hendel said: "He has to change the agenda. He does not believe even one word of it."

Shimon Peres, the opposition Labour leader, said: "Planning is not implementing."

Ophir Pines, another Labour spokesman, added: "The prime minister talks about these things endlessly and we're tired of it. We demand action."

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