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Israeli Cabinet Approves Evacuation Plan

On Sunday, Israeli cabinet voted 17-5 in favor of evacuating settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

But another expected cabinet vote, the endorsement of a barrier route looping around Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, was likely to add to Palestinians' fears Israel was cementing its grip on large swathes of territory they also seek.

The historic, back-to-back decisions by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government could shape the future borders between two peoples locked in bloody conflict for the past decades.

Sharon's US-backed plan to remove all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank starting in July has been called a possible step towards peace by Israelis and Palestinians alike, buoyed by optimism after a February 8 truce agreement.

However, further ministerial votes will be needed for each of the four phases of the evacuation process.

"The evacuation of settlements is a difficult step, a very difficult one," Sharon, once considered the godfather of the settler movement, said as he convened his cabinet. "But it is a crucial step for the future of the state of Israel."

Sharon has fought for over a year to get his withdrawal plan past far-rightists, including some within his own Likud party, who are loath to cede an inch of occupied land.

Polls show most Israelis welcome a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but ultranationalists say it would be a "reward for Palestinian terrorism" and many settlers believe the land is theirs by biblical birthright.

Sharon's plan calls for Israel's first removal of settlements from land captured in the 1967 Middle East war where Palestinians want to establish a state.

But even with Sharon's "national unity" cabinet backing up parliament's endorsement of his plan, opponents could still use a pending budget vote to bring down his government and possibly put off settlement evacuation indefinitely.

Sharon is trying to juggle allies to back this year's budget and if he fails by the end of March, elections must be called.

He will also have to contend with Palestinian anger at the cabinet's expected decision to push forward with the final phase of a barrier that cuts into the West Bank to encompass settlements near Jerusalem.

Israel says the barrier stops suicide bombers. Palestinians call it a land grab meant to deny them a viable state. The World Court has ruled the structure illegal.

The revised barrier route will take up to 7 percent of the West Bank - and leave 10,000 Palestinians on the Israeli-held side - as opposed to 16 percent envisaged in the original plan.

"It preempts and prejudges issues reserved for the final-status negotiations," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.

"Any decision to proceed with the barrier would undermine efforts to revive the peace process", he added.

Some Palestinians remain worried Sharon wants to quit impoverished Gaza only to annex areas around more populous West Bank settlement blocs.

(China Daily February 21, 2005)


Israel Halts Razing of Palestinian Homes
Evacuation Compensation Bill Passed in Israeli Parliament
New Gaza Violence Strains De Facto Truce
Israelis Rally to Protest Disengagement
Settler Killed in Gaza Ambush
Sharon, Peres Reach Deal on New Government
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