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Sharon Seeks US Rejection of Palestinian Right of Return - 2004-03-21

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he wants the United States to announce that it rejects claims by Palestinian refugees that they be allowed to return to areas that are now part of Israel. Mr. Sharon told a meeting of his ruling Likud Party on Sunday that he will ask for this guarantee in exchange for agreeing to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon addressed members of his Likud faction amid growing opposition to his plan to unilaterally withdraw troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

He says this will become the only option for Israel if peace talks with the Palestinians remain stalled.

Mr. Sharon told Likud members on Sunday that he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state following an Israeli withdrawal.

However, he stressed that a future Palestinian state would be the only place for millions of Palestinian refugees to make their home and that they would be barred from entering Israel.

Mr. Sharon said he also wants the U.S. administration to publicly support this stand before implementing his disengagement plan.

Israeli officials said the chief of staff of Mr. Sharon's office, Dov Weisglass, is expected to make this position clear to senior U.S. officials, during a visit to Washington this week.

But some Likud members, such as Gilad Erdan, say they will oppose Mr. Sharon's plan, even it is backed by U.S. guarantees.

Mr. Erdan says any unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank is tantamount to giving a reward to terrorism.

"We always claimed, and we still do," he said, "that withdrawing or giving the terror organizations to believe or to understand that with terror activities they can gain something from Israel - that is terrible thing to do. It's very clear that this plan will tear the Likud apart because, I believe, the majority in the Likud oppose the prime minister's plan."

Meanwhile, a high-level Egyptian security delegation is expected in the Gaza Strip this week to discuss the implications of an Israeli pullout from the territory.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the Egyptian officials want to assist in training Palestinian police to maintain law and order in Gaza, following the evacuation of Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from the area.