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Israeli Official Suggests Possible Mass Evacuation of Jewish Settlers - 2003-12-21

Israel's deputy prime minister says tens of thousands of Jewish settlers might have to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip if Israel takes unilateral steps to separate from the Palestinians.

Ehud Olmert made his comments in Jerusalem Sunday, three days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon outlined a so-called "disengagement plan" to be implemented if Israel and the Palestinians cannot strike a peace deal.

The proposal calls for Israel to abandon some settlements but hold on to others closer to Israel proper, while speeding up work on a fence separating Israel from the West Bank.

Jewish settlers who consider the West Bank to be Israeli land have expressed outrage, while both the Palestinians and United States have urged Israel to stick by the internationally-backed "road map" peace plan.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials say they are still working on setting up a meeting between Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in a bid to re-start the stalled peace process.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat says the summit could take place as early as this week.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials say Israeli soldiers have killed a Palestinian boy during one of several raids into the West Bank and Gaza. The five-year-old boy was said to have died after he was shot in the chest Sunday in the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Earlier, Palestinian witnesses said Israeli troops arrested Adnan Asfour, an official of the militant group Hamas, during a raid on an apartment complex in Nablus. The Israeli army confirmed the arrest.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians say Israeli forces destroyed at least five homes during an overnight raid in the Rafah area near the border with Egypt. Israeli officials say they targeted houses used for anti-Israeli activities.