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Sharon Considers Relocating Gaza Settlers to West Bank - 2004-02-06

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is considering relocating settlers he might evacuate from the Gaza Strip to settlements in the West Bank, rather than into Israel itself as had been expected.

A spokesman for Mr. Sharon said Friday that the proposed strategy of relocating settlers from Gaza to the West Bank is one of a series of options now being discussed.

He says the proposal would involve settlers being moved to large West Bank settlement blocs that Israel intends to annex under any final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The plan Mr. Sharon announced this week involves the removal of most settlements in the Gaza Strip, and possibly all of them, as well as a few others in the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon's spokesman says no final decision has been reached as the government is still drafting what it calls a "disengagement plan" to separate Israel from the Palestinians.

The spokesman's comments Friday follow Mr. Sharon's surprise announcement earlier this week that he is preparing to evacuate 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon added that he believed in the long-term all Jews would be removed from the territory.

It was initially understood that Mr. Sharon intended to relocate these communities inside Israel, primarily in the largely unpopulated southern Negev area.

The comments of Mr. Sharon's spokesman on Friday indicated a different approach, under which Israel would abandon the Gaza Strip while insisting on strengthening its hold over parts of the West Bank.

Senior U.S. officials are expected to arrive in Israel soon to discuss the plan with Mr. Sharon.

The Israeli leader is also preparing to travel to Washington soon to present his ideas to President Bush.

Prime Minister Sharon has said he will implement the plan on his own, if peace talks with the Palestinians remain stalled. Another senior official has said the Israeli government is not willing to wait more than six months.

Israeli public opinion polls published Friday indicate a jump in support for Mr. Sharon after he proposed removing Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.

His main opponents on this issue are right-wing parties and the settlers themselves, a few hundred of whom traveled from Gaza to hold a protest Friday outside Mr. Sharon's ranch in the Negev.