Sharon stakes claim to key settlements

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon has reaffirmed that Israel plans to hold onto the most populous settlement blocs in the West Bank under any final agreement with Palestinians.

Ariel Sharon has reaffirmed that Israel plans to hold onto the most populous settlement blocs in the West Bank under any final agreement with Palestinians.

In his first declaration on the shape of any "final status" deal since Mahmoud Abbas took office as Palestinian leader, the Israeli Prime Minister made it clear he was holding President Bush to the concessions he secured from him last April. Those would include the redrawing of the 1967 borders to include the biggest settlement blocs.

Mr Sharon was his clearest yet saying he wanted co-ordination with the Palestinian Authority on its plans to withdraw 7,500 settlers from Gaza in the summer. "Disengagement from Gaza will be co-ordinated with the Palestinians," he said

Mr Sharon vowed that he would not be deflected from the Gaza disengagement plan by a spate of extreme right wing death threats against ministers including himself. "In my entire life, I have never surrendered to threats and I have no intention of starting now," he said.

The Prime Minister told a Likud faction meeting on Monday that his family had hired security guards to protect the grave of his late wife, Lily, from desecration by right-wing activists. Two other Cabinet ministers and a senior IDF officer have received death threats in recent days from extremists opposed to disengagement.

Sounding an optimistic note, Mr Sharon said Israel and the Palestinians were at the "crossroads" of peace in the wake of the halt to armed conflict called for by both sides. At the same time, however, he emphasised the Gaza disengagement plan had yielded the first ever agreement from a US President that terms on a final deal with the Palestinians would in include the right of Palestinian refugees only to return to the new Palestinian state and not to Israel, for the main Jewish "population blocs" created since 1967 to be included in a Jewish state, and for Israelís "right to self defence".

The Prime Minister said: "When we have to negotiate about the final agreement it will not be possible to ignore those realities." Mr Sharon added that would "no doubt" affect the borders drawn between the Palestinian state and Israel in such an agreement.

Although Mr Sharon's remarks reflect existing policy, they underline that the replacement of Yasser Arafat by Mr Abbas has not altered his determination to hold onto the biggest Jewish population centres in the occupied West Bank.

The strains to the mutually agreed ceasefire were still evident last night after Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians who the Army said had been seen seen armed and approaching the West Bank settlement of Bracha. Palestinian sources said the men belonged to the loosely Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Palestinian sources said that a settler had shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian boy said to have been throwing stones.

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