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Sharon to Develop New Gaza Disengagement Plan - 2004-05-16

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is developing a new plan to withdraw from Gaza, after his Likud Party rejected his original plan in a referendum. The news comes the day after more than 100,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv in favor of a Gaza withdrawal, amid renewed international efforts to get the peace process going again.

Israeli officials say Mr. Sharon's new plan will not deviate greatly from his original proposals, but aims to ease the security concerns of members of his Cabinet.

The officials say that the plan still calls for a withdrawal of all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank.

The new plan will contain new measures to help ensure Palestinian armed groups do not misuse the houses and other assets left behind when Israel evacuates the settlements.

These changes have been made at the request of some of Mr. Sharon's cabinet ministers, who feared that the abandoned settlements might be used as new bases for terrorism.

Mr. Sharon expects to take the plan to his Cabinet for approval within weeks, after he receives guarantees of support from key members of his Likud Party.

Israeli officials say the Prime Minister appears to be assuming that Israel will be withdrawing from Gaza, despite the Likud Party's rejection of the plan in a referendum earlier this month.

Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet that he would not allow Palestinian terrorism to threaten his nation, even after, in his words, the separation from Gaza. The Prime Minister's remarks came one day after more than 100,000 Israelis attended a rally Saturday night calling for Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

The demonstration in Tel Aviv was organized by left-wing politicians and their supporters to urge Mr. Sharon to press ahead with his plan, despite the opposition he is facing within his own party.

One of the main speakers, Israel's Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres, said 80 percent of Israelis want a Gaza withdrawal as part of efforts to reach peace with the Palestinians. He spoke to reporters afterwards.

"While the majority of the Israeli people want clearly the beginning of peace, we are going to represent the majority," he said. "It is not a rally of the Opposition, it is not a rally of the Left, it is a rally of the majority. It is not a rally of protest. It is a rally of hope for real peace, as soon as possible."

Israeli observers say the rally could have an effect on government policy.

But Israel's Housing Minister, Effi Eitam, of the right-wing National Religious Party, disagrees. "Well the meeting [rally] of the Oslo group, repeated the slogans which actually brought Israel to the disaster we are in now, so I do not think that what we saw yesterday will really change the mind of the government or the Prime Minister," he said.

Mr. Eitam has warned that his party and other right-wing factions will pull out of the Cabinet, if Mr. Sharon goes ahead with his disengagement plan.

Mr. Peres has pledged that the Labor Party will vote in favor of the plan in the parliament and will prevent the government from falling over the issue.