Sharon says he will remove all Jews from Gaza

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, stunned supporters and critics yesterday by announcing a plan to evacuate all 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Although he set no timetable, he said: "I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza."

This was the first time that Mr Sharon, or any other prime minister, had been so specific.

Until a year ago, the right-wing Likud leader had insisted that he would not even remove Netzarim, the most isolated of the Gaza settlements, which he claimed was essential for Israel's security.

Officially, Israel remains committed to the international "road-map" for peace, but Mr Sharon has ordered his strategic planners to prepare for unilateral "disengagement" in the West Bank and Gaza if the Palestinian Authority fails to curb violence.

Typically of his leadership style, he delivered yesterday's surprise announcement without consulting colleagues. In an interview with the liberal daily newspaper Ha'aretz, he said he had given an order to "plan" the evacuation of the 17 Gaza settlements, which have a population of 7,500.

Only after a trailer appeared on the Ha'aretz website did he brief Likud MPs. Yehiel Hazan, a Likud MP, said that he was "in shock" after hearing the news.

Mr Sharon, who has traditionally championed the settlers, said he intended to seek American help in financing the withdrawal during a trip to Washington this month.

"It is not a simple matter," said the Israeli Prime Minister. "We are talking of thousands of square kilometres of hothouses, factories and packing plants. There are people there who are third generation. It's not a quick matter, especially if it's done under fire."

He told the Likud Party that during his US trip he would also be proposing the removal of a smaller number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

He indicated that he would seek the settlers' agreement to go quietly, but their Gaza regional council vowed to unseat him. A spokesman said: "We call on Sharon to return immediately to his previous positions and not to bring another disaster on the nation by evacuating Jews from their homes." The pro-settler National Religious Party, which backs the settlers and has six MPs in the 120-member Knesset, threatened to pull out of the ruling coalition. "We cannot participate in a cabinet that destroys settlements," Shaul Yahalom, one of its backbenchers, said yesterday.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, expressed disbelief. "Seventeen trailers [settlements]? What, so they can replace them with another 170?" he said.

But Palestinian militants claimed that Mr Sharon's decision gave them cause to rejoice, as it was a vindication of the campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Saeed Siyam, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said that "such a withdrawal, if it happens, will be as a result of the resistance", a reference to Hamas attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers.

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