Gaza withdrawal 'will not be cancelled' regardless of election result

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The Independent Online

One of Ariel Sharon's most senior Cabinet supporters yesterday moved quickly to rebut a ministerial suggestion that the planned withdrawal from Gaza should be put on hold in the event of a summer election victory by Hamas.

One of Ariel Sharon's most senior Cabinet supporters yesterday moved quickly to rebut a ministerial suggestion that the planned withdrawal from Gaza should be put on hold in the event of a summer election victory by Hamas.

Shaul Mofaz, Israel's defence minister, declared that evacuation of settlers - which Mr Sharon announced on Monday he was delaying for three weeks until August 15 - "will not be cancelled" even if Hamas repeat their strong showing in last week's Palestinian municipal elections.

His remarks follow an observation on Monday by Sylvan Shalom, the Foreign Minister, that it would be "unreasonable" to move ahead with the plan to pull out Gaza's 8,500 Jewish settlers as if nothing had happened and hand over the territories only for Hamas to create there a 'Hamastan'."

But Mr Mofaz told Army Radio yesterday: "It's true Hamas has been strengthened. There is the reality of the Palestinian Authority and the reality of the terror groups, but I think we must make enormous efforts to implement the disengagement plan."

In doing so, the defence minister, who is directly responsible for the large scale Army operation to complete the evacuation after settlers volunteering to leave have departed, was closely in line with the Prime Minister's own repeated pledges that it will go ahead on the now - slightly adjusted - schedule.

Mr Shalom, an early opponent of disengagement and then an advocate of a referendum on the issue is an ambitious politician who regularly cultivates a base on the Likud right by striking hawkish positions. Mr Mofaz's remarks, came before Mr Sharon himself told a Jewish group yesterday that "For Israel, this move, this disengagement, is very important."

Nevertheless the remarks by both the Prime Minister and the Defence minister may not wholly dispel a slight element of doubt that has crept back - at least temporarily - into parts of the political and media debate over whether the plan will be implemented on schedule whatever the circumstances obtaining at the time.

Shimon Peres, the Vice Prime Minister, said in a weekend interview with the Jerusalem Post that he did not think disengagement was yet a "done deal". He said that if the government implemented the original Cabinet decision to destroy the Gaza settlers' homes - which he opposes - it would delay the disengagement plan by three months - a period in which he feared something could happen to scuttle the plan.

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