Israeli cabinet gives backing to evacuation of settlements

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The Independent Online

After nearly 38 years of bitterly contested colonisation, the Israeli government has voted for the first time to evacuate Jewish settlements from Palestinian land.

The withdrawal of all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four from the northern West Bank is to begin on 20 July and to be completed within eight weeks. The army is scheduled to leave Gaza by the end of the year.

The Knesset endorsed a compensation package last week worth about £500m to be shared among the 1,500 displaced families. If the ceasefire agreed with President Mahmoud Abbas's new Palestinian regime holds, Israel hopes to co-ordinate the pullout.

As a further gesture, Israel cancelled restrictions yesterday on Palestinians under 35 leaving for Egypt via Gaza's Rafah crossing. It also increased the number allowed to enter Israel from the Strip to 1,600 workers and 800 businessmen.

Ariel Sharon, the right-wing Prime Minister who has fathered a left-wing agenda on his reluctant Likud Party, celebrated the pullout as "a vital step for the future of the state of Israel". Shimon Peres, his Labour deputy, said Israel had paid an enormous price in lives, resources and international reputation for its stay in Gaza.

Although yesterday's 17-5 vote by the cabinet set a final seal on the evacuation, settler leaders vowed to continue fighting. "As a last resort," Emily Amrusi, their spokeswoman, said, "we'll bring more than 100,000 people to stop this expulsion with our bodies."

Ministers hope, however, that more settlers will take the compensation and accept government help to move into Israel. About 63 farming families have already signed up. Although he would divulge no figures, a spokesman forMr Sharon's disengagement team said "very many individuals and groups" were talking to them.

The cabinet also approved by 20-1, with one abstention, a revised route for the West Bank separation barrier, part concrete wall, part razor-wire fence. Critics saw the new line as a pointer to Mr Sharon's final border ambitions. South of Hebron, it will now run close to the pre-1967 "Green Line" frontier, but further north it will slice into the territory to encompass two settlement blocks: Gush Etzion, between Bethlehem and Hebron, and Ma'aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem.

Gush Etzion alone comprises 14 settlements. That will leave 6.5 per cent of the West Bank on the Israeli side, compared with 16 per cent under the original route, which was vetoed by Israel's Supreme Court as an infringement of Palestinian rights. At least 10,000 Palestinians will still find themselves on the Israeli side.

Khalil Tafakji, a Palestinian land surveyor, protested that the barrier would cut the West Bank in two and deny the Palestinians a viable state. "How will Palestinians get from Jerusalem to Hebron?" he asked. "How will they get from Jerusalem to Jericho?" Israel, he claimed, was dictating the final map.

But Ehud Olmert, the Likud vice-premier, insisted that the barrier could be demolished if and when Israelis no longer needed it to protect themselves against terror attacks.