The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is planning to evacuate seven established Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as part of a unilateral withdrawal, according to settler leaders who leaked yesterday what they said were details given to them by Mr Sharon's office.
The Prime Minister's office immediately denied the claims. But Mr Sharon has threatened that unless there is progress in peace talks with the Palestinians soon, he will impose a unilateral "disengagement" between Israel and the Palestinians, withdraw from parts of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and effectively impose borders of Israel's choice on a Palestinian state.
The claims that he plans to evacuate established settlements are the clearest evidence yet that he means to go through with it. The 150 settlements, on occupied land in contravention of international law, are among the biggest obstacles to peace. Although Mr Sharon's government has dismantled a few largely uninhabited outposts not authorised by Israel, no Israeli government has dared to take down the official settlements, many of which are large towns.
Mr Sharon rose to power as the champion of the settlers. It was he who told them to seize the hilltops of the West Bank before a peace deal could be made under the Oslo accords. And it was Mr Sharon who pushed a change in the route of the "separation fence" through cabinet so that major settlements could be on the "Israeli" side.
He has been accused of treachery by the Israeli right for saying some settlements will have to go under his unilateral withdrawal plan. But others see it as part of a larger scheme in which he will sacrifice a few remote settlements to keep larger settlement blocs and annex huge swaths of the West Bank.
The Palestinians fear that under Mr Sharon's plan, all they will get are fenced-off cantons around their major population centres, with road links between them under Israeli control, which would quickly become overcrowded.
The seven settlements named yesterday, four in the West Bank and three in the Gaza Strip, are small and remote, cut off from Israel and the large settlement blocs, and hemmed in by Palestinian towns and villages.
The settlers' Yesha Council said yesterday that Mr Sharon's office approached them to strike a deal under which they would agree to lose these seven, and the government would pass a law undertaking not to evacuate any more except under a peace deal with the Palestinians.
There are fears of violence from extremist settlers if Israeli soldiers are sent to evacuate settlements, and if the settlers' claims are true, Mr Sharon's office may have been trying to avoid confrontation. Already, settlers have tried to fight off soldiers taking down uninhabited outposts.
After months of absence, John Wolf, the US envoy, has returned for talks aimed at reviving the route-map for peace. But expectations for progress were low.Reuse content