Sharon pledges to expand West Bank settlements as last Israelis leave Gaza

Residents marched bearing biblical scrolls and their synagogue's menorah into armoured buses that took them out of Netzarim, an isolated Jewish enclave close to Gaza City, after troops had entered. Netzarim was among the first settlements to be founded, 33 years ago, and the last to be evacuated.

South of Gaza City, within sight of the departing residents, a group of Palestinian men as well as children danced in celebration to the music of a bagpiper and two drummers.

But the Israeli Prime Minister marked the peaceful end of Jewish settlement in Gaza by setting himself at odds with publicly stated American policy: he promised to continue linking Ma'ale Adumin, the largest West Bank settlement, with Jerusalem.

Mr Sharon declared: "There will be building in the settlement blocs. Each government since 1967 - right, left and national unity - has seen strategic importance in specific areas [on the Palestinian side of Israel's pre-1967 borders, beyond the Green Line]. I will build." He said Ma'ale Adumim would "continue to grow and be connected to Jerusalem," and that Ariel settlement would be a permanent part of Israel.

The Jerusalem Post, which carried the interview with Mr Sharon, said he was "obviously aware" the internationally agreed road map to peace, to which Mr Sharon repeatedly says he is committed, called for a freeze on all new settlement construction and that such construction would put him on a "collision course" with the US and Europe.

In a robust attempt to make clear to the right that disengagement did not mean he had forsaken his role as the principal architect of relentless settlement growth over the past 30 years or more, Mr Sharon said: "Because of the settlements we can pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs [in Hebron]".

If not for the settlement movement, he asked, "would it have been possible to renew the settlement in Gush Etzion; incorporate Rachel's Tomb inside Jerusalem's fence; or have Ma'ale Adumim and its satellites, Beit El, Shilo, the Ariel Bloc, or the security zone overlooking the coastal plain?".

Mr Sharon's remarks threaten to undermine the international community's insistence that Gaza disengagement is a way back to the road map. It also fulfils predictions of a post-disengagement rightward tack by the Israeli Prime Minister as he prepares for Likud leadership challenge by Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned two weeks ago as finance minister in protest at disengagement.

But Mr Sharon's words were not enough to forestall vituperative attacks by political opponents of disengagement yesterday when he met the Knesset foreign and defence committee. Uzi Landau, a leading Likud dissident, called on Mr Sharon to resign and told him: "You are a liar, a swindler and cruel. You have brought Israel to the peak of corruption. You are not worthy of being a leader." The religious Zionist Knesset member, Effie Eitam, promised Mr Sharon he would be a victim of "political revenge".

And Mr Sharon's condemnation of settlers erecting "tent cities" was ignored by 45 families from the nearby secular coastal northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai, who prepared to stay under awnings thrown across a field next to a service station on the the main Tel Aviv-Beersheeva road until their demands to be rehoused as a single beachside community were met. Wellwishers brought them food, water and bedding, and Menachem Berger, 56, said there was "no limit" to how long the community was prepared to stay. "We will improve this place. We will bring caravans in a few weeks if necessary. We are here until someone from the government will accept our plans."

Although the government has earmarked a stretch of land close to the Israeli coastal beauty spot of Nitzanim, Mr Berger said it was "near a main road and five kilometres from the sea". He added: "Elei Sinai is a beautiful place by the sea and we are looking for something like that. If the government is going to take us out of Gaza for the sake of Israel and every citizen of Israel is going to prosper, we don't want to be the only ones who pay the price. If it costs a bit more than what they planned for us, why not?"

Now Israeli troops are preparing to overcome stiff resistance likely to be more violent than it was in most of the Gaza settlements when it moves in today to evacuate the two small northern West Bank settlements of Homesh and Sanur. Residents' ranks have been swelled by hundreds of "hilltop youth" and others from far-rightist West Bank settlements.

Seventeen residents hostile to the infiltrators left Sanur to avoid confrontation and reports said that on the roof of its former British police station, youths using the building as a citadel were welding metal rods into makeshift weapons.

Two of the four remote settlements - out of a total of 120 in the West Bank - are empty after settlers departed voluntarily.

Disputed holy sites

* THE TOMB OF THE PATRIARCHS in the West Bank town of Hebron is the second-holiest site in Judaism after Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but also holds religious significance for Muslims and Christians. It contains the twin caves that, according to tradition, are considered the burial place of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. Until 1967, when Hebron was occupied by Israel, Jews were barred from ascending beyond the seventh step of the Mosque of Abraham now occupying the site.

* RACHEL'S TOMB is the third-holiest site in Judaism, on the outskirts of Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem. It is considered the final resting-place of the wife of Jacob, who set up a monument over her grave. She died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Rachel is the only matriarch not buried in Hebron. The tomb is a guarded pilgrimage site in an Israeli-protected enclave where there have been frequent shooting incidents.

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