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Israel's Cabinet Approves Gaza Withdrawal, Debates Security Barrier

The Israeli cabinet has given final go-ahead for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and small portions of the West Bank, by voting 17 to 5 for the disengagement plan. The Cabinet was also set to endorse a new route for part of Israel's controversial security barrier in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Sharon convened the cabinet session, saying it was neither an easy nor a happy day as the ministers faced the decision before them.

Mr. Sharon, once one of the strongest champions of the settler movement, asked his ministers to approve the evacuation of all settlements from Gaza and four small ones from the northern West Bank.

While opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis support his controversial plan, settlers and their backers are marshaling whatever forces they can to oppose the plan.

It has taken some fancy political maneuvering by Mr. Sharon, including forming a new coalition government with the opposition Labor Party in order to garner enough support for the plan to move ahead.

Labor Party minister Haim Ramon called the Cabinet session historic.

Mr. Ramon said the decision, while painful, is vital to the survival of the state of Israel. He said this is the beginning of the end of Israeli occupation of about three million Palestinians and means Israel can once again be a genuine democratic, Jewish state.

While Labor favors disengagement, some members of Mr. Sharon's own Likud Party oppose it. Health Minister Danny Naveh is one of them.

Mr. Naveh said the government has not been convincing enough that disengagement is really necessary for the security of the country. He said he cannot see enough reason to uproot more than 8,000 Israeli men, women, and children from places where many of them have lived for the past 30 years.

Last Wednesday, the Israeli parliament approved a plan to compensate the settlers who will be evacuated. Now, the Cabinet is to clear the way for formal notification of the settlers and for finalizing the timetable for the withdrawal.

The other major issue is the endorsement of a new route for the southern portion of Israel's controversial security barrier in and around the West Bank. The latest route would run closer to Israel's old boundary with the West Bank, but would still encompass several major settlements and include six to eight percent of Palestinian land on the Israeli side of the barrier.

Israel has said the barrier is necessary to keep out terrorists, but Palestinians will see even this revised route as confirmation that Israel simply wants to grab as much Palestinian land as possible.