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Sharon Calls Gaza Pullout Vital For Israel's Future

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the withdrawal from all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four smaller ones in the West Bank is a painful but important step for Israel's future. His comments came in a televised address Monday night after Israeli troops began handing out eviction notices to settlers.

Mr. Sharon said the pullout is a painful step, both for the nation and for himself.

The prime minister, once the strongest force in favor of the settler movement, said he dropped that support because of what he termed the changing reality in the nation, the region and the world.

He said more than a million Palestinians live in Gaza, and the population doubles every generation, adding, 'we cannot hold Gaza for good.' He said withdrawing the settlements is the only way that will lead Israel to the bright future he believes lies ahead.

Mr. Sharon said it is now up to the Palestinians to clamp down on militants and stop the violence. He said, if Palestinians do so, Israel will respond, as he put it, with an olive branch.

Mr. Sharon proposed the Gaza pullout last year, saying that protecting 85-hundred settlers, surrounded by more than one-million Palestinians, came at too high a cost in both lives and money.

Earlier Monday, thousands of Israeli soldiers and police began delivering eviction notices to the settlers. Their entry was blocked in at least five settlements by young people opposed to the pullout.

Israel's top general, Dan Halutz, warned that troops will forcibly remove any Israeli who remains in the territory on Wednesday.

Authorities expect about half of the estimated 8500 settlers in Gaza will leave voluntarily. But others, along with thousands of outside supporters who are with them in the settlements, are determined to resist.