Sharon May Have Gaza Settlements Removed

Times Staff Writer

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered plans for removing nearly all of the Jewish settlements in the violence-plagued Gaza Strip, according to a newspaper report and members of his political party who were briefed on the proposal.

The reports Monday created a tempest within Sharon’s Likud Party and drew questions about his sincerity among Palestinian officials and Israeli peace activists, who believe that dismantling the settlements will remove a stumbling block to peace.

By the evening, a Sharon spokesman was cautioning that the idea of evacuating 17 Gaza settlements was merely one of several scenarios being reviewed as part of the prime minister’s proposal to separate Israelis and Palestinians if the two sides fail to reach a peace agreement.


“This is only an initial option -- one of several being considered,” said Raanan Gissin.

Gissin said the number of Gaza settlements that might be removed in any unilateral separation by Israel could be much lower. He declined to identify which communities were among the 17 Sharon cited in an interview with Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus for today’s editions.

Gissin said there were 21 settlements in Gaza. It wasn’t clear Monday night which would be spared, although Israeli television reported that the plan would leave in place three settlements on the territory’s northern tip.

“It is my intention to carry out an evacuation -- sorry, a relocation -- of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold on to anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements,” Sharon was quoted as saying in the Haaretz interview, which was posted early on the newspaper’s Internet site.

“I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza,” Sharon said.

He did not spell out a timetable for evacuating the settlements, where about 7,500 Jewish residents live, but his comments were the most detailed yet regarding withdrawals as part of his “disengagement plan.”


Since making that proposal public in December, Sharon has said repeatedly that Israelis would not remain in all the places they are today. The Gaza settlements come under frequent gunfire and mortar attack from Palestinians and are among the most difficult and costly for Israel to defend.

Sharon met Monday afternoon with fellow Likud members in the Knesset, or parliament, and left some angered.

“I am simply in a state of shock,” said one member, Yehiel Hazan, who predicted that the party would reject such an evacuation.

Sharon narrowly avoided political embarrassment Monday when a no-confidence motion in the Knesset, which was scheduled before the settlement proposal became public, lost by one vote. The 42-41 tally reflected the disenchantment among his right-wing supporters but fell far short of the 61 votes needed to topple his government.

Talk of a Gaza withdrawal drew wary reactions from Palestinian officials, who view the settlements as a key impediment to setting the terms for creating a Palestinian state.

“I will believe it when I see it. I can assure Mr. Sharon that no Palestinian will stand in the way of Israelis leaving Gaza,” said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator. “At the end of the day, Israelis have to choose between settlements and peace.”

Settler groups decried the possible relocation as an abandonment of their cause of planting a Jewish presence throughout the biblical land of Israel -- a campaign Sharon has steadfastly supported over the years. The settlers’ Yesha Council said evacuating the settlements would reward terrorism and encourage further Palestinian violence.

“We promise a very tough struggle against Sharon to shorten his term as prime minister. We call on Sharon to go back to his old and good positions,” said Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for a bloc of communities known as Gush Katif, home to most of the settlers in Gaza.

A wholesale evacuation from the Gaza Strip would be a reversal of course for Israel, which built the settlements as strategic bulwarks. But increasingly even hawks worry about the costs of staying put.

An evacuation could fortify Hamas, the Palestinian militant faction that is strongest in Gaza and would probably wield even greater influence in Israel’s absence. There is also the potential for bloody confrontations between settlers and the troops who might try to oust them.

Removing the settlements from Gaza would have symbolic importance for Sharon as a godfather of the settlement movement, said Tamara Wittes of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. But it would not be nearly as politically dangerous as trying to oust the ultranationalist settlers in the West Bank, she said.

Likud members who attended the meeting with Sharon provided differing accounts of how soon any evacuation would be carried out and how many settlements would be included. Knesset member Gila Gamliel said that no withdrawal would take place immediately and that not all settlements would be removed. But other Likud members told reporters they understood that the plan would be put in place soon and would cover all Gaza settlements.

In the Haaretz interview, Sharon said removing the settlements would not be easy.

“We are talking of a population of 7,500 people. It’s not a simple matter. We are talking of thousands of square kilometers of hothouses, factories and packing plants,” he said.

Sharon said he would present his plan to President Bush during a hoped-for trip to Washington this month. “It has to be done with American agreement and support,” he said.

Sharon’s announcement puts the Bush administration in something of a dilemma. On one hand, the administration has long advocated the dismantling of Jewish settlements and extracted promises from Sharon to dismantle illegal outposts as part of a U.S.-backed peace plan.

At the same time, a State Department official said, Washington does not want to endorse the unilateral strategy of separating Israelis from Palestinians that Sharon announced in December. Moreover, the administration remains skeptical about whether Sharon will follow through on his stated policies.

“We’ve had announcements on settlements before from the Israelis,” the official said. “The key is getting commitments on [pledges] that Sharon has actually given the president. So we’re eager to see if steps will follow soon.”

Members of the opposition Labor Party said they had seen little sign that Sharon was preparing to implement such a difficult endeavor. They noted that he had taken almost no action against illegal outposts -- tiny offshoots of settlements that are to be dismantled under the peace plan -- despite talking about the need to make “painful concessions” to end the conflict with the Palestinians.


Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.