Sharon's Gaza move far from settled
IAN MATHER DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT
BEWILDERMENT was the overwhelming reaction when Israel’s veteran prime minister appeared to abandon his decades-long position as a champion of expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land.
After announcing the shock decision last week that he proposed to remove Jewish families from Gaza, Israelis and international observers alike have been left divided on whether Ariel Sharon meant it.
The population in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has grown by 16% during the almost three years of Sharon’s rule. But in announcing his proposal to a closed meeting of his Likud party, Sharon described the Gaza settlements as "a security burden" and "a source of continuous friction" with Palestinians.
He said since the Middle East "road map" was stalled Israel must engage in "unilateral disengagement" from the occupied territories and withdraw behind its security fence.
"I am working on the assumption that in future there will be no Jews in Gaza," he told his startled audience.
Some believe Sharon is genuinely changing course. They point to the fact that his hard-line policies have failed to produce greater security for ordinary Israelis as promised in his election campaign, and have led to more suicide bombings.
Only yesterday a leader of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, which has carried out scores of suicide bombings against Israel was targeted by Israeli helicopters. A missile killed a 12-year-old boy and wounded three Islamic militants.
Shlomo Avineri, former director of Israel’s foreign ministry under Yitzhak Rabin, said: "He has come to the conclusion that there is no possibility of a negotiated settlement. But the present situation cannot go on."
Others suspect Sharon of trying to deflect attention from a widening corruption investigation against him. Sharon was interviewed by police last week over claims he was privy to bribes to his son from an Israeli property developer for Sharon to use his influence with the Greek government over a Greek island casino development.
Sharon’s Gaza proposal enraged Israeli settlers, who immediately called on him to resign. Eran Sternberg, spokesman of the Hof Gaza Regional Council, which represents the 7,500 Jewish settlers living in Gaza, said the settlement movement and its supporters would "stretch the limits of democracy, while avoiding violence, to protest the plan".
The heads of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip are to fly to Washington to launch an intensive lobbying campaign in Congress.
Sharon’s centre-right government relies on the support of pro-settlement parties, and removing the settlements could bring down his coalition.
But deputy education minister Zvi Hendel, a resident of Gaza, said he believed his National Union party, which is in the ruling coalition, should stay in the government but try to have Sharon replaced.
Ten Knesset members from the ruling Likud Party have written to Sharon threatening to abandon him if he moves forward with his plans.
Paradoxically, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was also scornful. He said he did not believe Sharon would do anything. He asked reporters: "What will he remove, 17 caravans? Later they will bring another 170."
The Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Palestinians would welcome any Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but said the latest plan was "a public relations exercise".
However, Sharon has probably done his political sums, and has calculated the opposition Labour Party will come to his rescue. Unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is already Labour’s policy, and the party says it will back Sharon, assuring him of a parliamentary majority even if the two ultra-nationalist parties in the coalition were to defect.
The polls also suggest Sharon has broad public support for dismantling the settlements.
The Jewish settlers in Gaza live in a permanent state of siege among 1.3 million poverty-stricken Palestinians. Their 21 settlements, of which Sharon proposes to dismantle 17, are the target of repeated attacks, and are costly to defend and difficult to support.
A poll last week found 52% of Israelis support dismantling all Gaza settlements, and 58% want to see isolated West Bank settlements removed. Sharon has offered to hold a referendum before carrying out the plan.
Later this month Sharon is due to meet President George Bush in Washington. He hopes to convince Bush that without an effective Palestinian partner, the best way to bring Bush’s Middle East vision to fruition would be by Israel withdrawing unilaterally, including from nearly all Gaza Strip settlements.
The State Department has already given qualified approval. "Action to remove settlements as a source of tension and a source of difficulty is good," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "It’s important that we start to make progress in resolving this issue and removing it as a difficulty between the two parties, setting up a situation where Israelis and Palestinians can both have stable lives."
But he added: "We’ve always been concerned about any steps that could attempt to unilaterally end the process or unilaterally impose a settlement."
The proposal was welcomed at the UN, where Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it was a "positive development".
Annan added that he hoped the so-called Quartet that is sponsoring the road map to Middle East peace - the UN, the US, the EU and Russia - could work with Sharon to implement the Gaza pullout.
But Annan cautioned that a Gaza withdrawal "should be seen as a first step because withdrawal from the West Bank will also be required if you’re going to establish two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, and really fulfil the spirit of land for peace."
Sharon denies his controversial plan is related to the corruption investigation, and says he is moving forward despite his legal problems not because of them. "Not only is this difficult for the settlers, but also it is more painful for myself than anyone else in Israel," he said. "But I’ve reached a decision and I am going to carry it out."
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