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Sharon Stands Firm on Gaza Settlement Plan


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will form a new government if any of his coalition partners try to block his plans to remove almost all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli leader's comments came as conservative members of his coalition warned the government will fall if Mr. Sharon tries to carry out his plan.

The Israeli leader's statements were carried Tuesday in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Mr. Sharon told the paper he "will not hesitate to set up another government" adding he has no intention of "being at the mercy of factions that won't permit [him] to handle matters of state."

In an interview with the Ha'aretz newspaper on Monday, Mr. Sharon said he intends to present his plan to President Bush, later this month during a visit to Washington. And that he intends to explore the possibility the United States would support it financially.

National Religious Party leader Effi Eitam told Army Radio Tuesday that the prime minister must first bring any evacuation plan before the cabinet for debate, prior to making it public in Washington. Mr. Eitam said that if that does not happen then the government's fall is only a matter of time. He said "there's no doubt that a public, international commitment of this sort is the beginning of the end of the government." The current coalition includes a number of factions and it is not clear who Mr. Sharon could turn to to form a new government should the religious parties pull out.

Mr. Sharon outlined to his Likud Party on Monday what he described as the first phase of a plan that would result in the relocation of an estimated 7,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip to locations in Israel. He said he would ask the settlers to go voluntarily but did not say what he would do if they don't.

Mr. Sharon also said he plans to remove what he termed three "problematic" settlements in the West Bank but did not name them. He said he has ordered officials to begin preparations for the relocation but did not provide a time-table.

Mr. Sharon has been a strong supporter of settlement activity in the occupied territories. But he has spoken previously of taking unilateral steps without a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians -- including plans to withdraw from more isolated settlements -- while strengthening Israeli control over other areas seized in 1967. In more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Palestinian militants have frequently attacked Israeli settlers and the soldiers sent to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protect them.

Mr. Sharon has said he wants the backing of the settlers, some of whom are third generation residents of the territory. A spokesman for Gaza settlers said Tuesday they will work to remove Mr. Sharon from power if he tries to carry out the plan.

Palestinian officials view any unilateral action by Israel with skepticism. Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday he believes Mr. Sharon's announcement is nothing more than a public relations stunt. He said that if the Israeli leader wants to pull out of Gaza then, as he put it, "no Palestinian will stand in his way."

Many Israelis are also skeptical of the plan. Peace Now, the Israeli political organization that has long advocated the removal of Jewish settlements from Palestinian lands, issued a statement Tuesday advising settlers not to hurry to pack.

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