Sharon pledge 'threatens peace process'

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian leadership warned yesterday that Ariel Sharon's defiant pledge to retain the five biggest Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank "may destroy the whole peace process".

The Palestinian leadership warned yesterday that Ariel Sharon's defiant pledge to retain the five biggest Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank "may destroy the whole peace process".

The Israeli premier, on his way to Washington for talks with President George Bush, declared that the large settlement of Ma'ale Adumim would remain within Israel "for ever and ever". But Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian premier, said: "These tactics destroy any hope for peace".

Mr Qureia added: "We will not accept any settlement blocs. And we will not accept any decisions unless the Palestinian Authority is a part of the decision-making process."

Mr Sharon is hoping that Mr Bush will recognise in their talks today that at least three of the biggest settlements, including Ma'ale Adumim, will not be yielded in any future negotiations with the Palestinians. He is pressing for the concession as a means of winning over dissidents in his own Likud party to his plan to disengage from Gaza.

But before flying out to Washington, Mr Sharon specified for the first time four other big settlements he expected Israel to keep in perpetuity:Gush Etzion; Kiryat Arba; and the flashpoint settlements in the area of Hebron. By contrast, his withdrawal plan for Gaza provides, in addition, for the evacuation of only four small and remote settlements in the West Bank. At the same time, Israel Radio reported that Mr Sharon had ordered the evacuation of five small illegal settlement outposts during the next few days, following a High Court decision a fortnight ago in favour of dismantling them. The network said that police and border police troops will be responsible for the evacuation, while IDF soldiers would stand by, in an attempt to prevent troops - many of whom are residents of settlements - from clashing with the settlers who face evacuation.

Although the timing of the evacuation is said to be up to the police and army, Israeli commentators have suggested it may suit the Prime Minister for television pictures of security forces evicting settlers to be shown during his US visit.

Israeli soldiers and police officers removed a group of settlers from the remains of the Hazon David outpost yesterday. The area was fenced off to stop settlers from rebuilding the structure used as a synagogue.

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