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Israel Moves to Relocate Jewish Settlers in Gaza - 2004-06-21

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has asked the help of the Jewish Agency to relocate settlements from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon says his government is moving ahead with plans to pull out of Gaza, even though he continues to face opposition within his own coalition government.

Speaking to representatives of the Jewish Agency late Sunday, Mr. Sharon asked for their support for his disengagement plan and to help relocate settlers from Gaza to new homes in the Negev in the south of Israel or in the Galilee area in the north.

"Above all else, the disengagement plan gives the people of Israel hope for a better future," he said. "Following approval of the disengagement plan, the government approached the Jewish Agency with a request to take part in the challenge of relocating settlements to the Negev and the Galilee."

The Jewish Agency is a worldwide organization that works to support Israel.

Mr. Sharon has said repeatedly that beginning a unilateral process of disengagement from the Palestinians is in Israel's vital interests. He has proposed to dismantle all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and pull out the soldiers that now protect them. The plan also includes dismantling four small settlements in the West Bank.

Stiff opposition to the plan from within Mr. Sharon's right-of-center coalition has led to a tenuous political situation for the prime minister. He no longer commands an outright majority in parliament and has faced several motions of no confidence, which were stopped only by support from the opposition Labor Party, which favors the Gaza withdrawal.

There continues to be talk of a major government shake-up and of Labor possibly joining a unity coalition with Mr. Sharon. But that does not appear imminent, as Labor wants a wider Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank as well and a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians, which the Israeli leader opposes.

Despite all this, Mr. Sharon insists he is going ahead with plans for the Gaza withdrawal by the end of next year. Israeli officials have held talks with Egypt about helping to maintain security in Gaza once the Israelis pull out.

The military also says it is considering building a deep trench in the southern Gaza Strip, along the border with Egypt, to stop Palestinians from smuggling in weapons. Mr. Sharon says that the trench is not a done deal and would not be built without prior consultations with Egypt.