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Sharon wins approval for withdrawal plan, security barrier route

JERUSALEM—Israel's government on Sunday ratified Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial plans to turn over the Gaza Strip to Palestinians this summer while cutting them off from swaths of the West Bank with a new security barrier route.

It was the first time Israel has decided to remove Jewish settlements from land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

Palestinian officials were unhappy with the measures, which they view as an attempt by Israeli leaders to draw borders unilaterally. Even the Gaza withdrawal of soldiers and settlers beginning in July, which is welcome in principle, shouldn't be done without linking them to future peace talks and further withdrawals, Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Hassan Abu Libdeh said Sunday evening.

For Sharon, the much-needed political victory was bittersweet. Late Sunday, he described the Gaza withdrawal decision as the "most difficult" in his 60 years of public service.

But, he said Sunday in a televised address to the nation, "I'm convinced that the decision we took is the right one to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state."

Once considered the champion of Jewish settlers, the former general is now a traitor to many of them for being the first Israeli leader to cede settlements to the Palestinians.

"It's not an easy day, it's not a happy day," Sharon said at the beginning of his marathon cabinet meeting Sunday. "But it's a critical move for the state of Israel."

In the first vote, ministers endorsed his embattled plan, by a vote of 17-5, to pull back settlers and soldiers from all of the Gaza Strip and four of 120 West Bank settlements. Sharon reinforced the measure by signing an order making it illegal for Israelis to be in the Gaza Strip after July 20. Some 9,000 settlers will be removed over two months and receive up to $871 million in compensation.

Despite the vote, settler leaders vowed to keep fighting. One of the leaders, Pinchas Wallerstein, called it "the day of judgment."

"This is not the time to rend our garments. We must prevent the implementation of this law with all of our strength," Wallerstein said in a Sunday interview on state-run Israel Radio.

The second cabinet vote Sunday evening, 20-1, set the final route of Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank to include two large settlement blocs near Jerusalem. The final segment of the barrier will leave some 7 percent of the West Bank, and some 10,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side. Israeli media reported that Israeli leaders believe the Bush Administration supports the new route.

Sharon said the new alignment balances Israel's security needs and a ruling by Israel's highest court that demanded the barrier be built closer to the pre-1967 border. The Israeli government has said it is building the barrier to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen from getting into Israel, but Palestinians, who've lost tens of thousands of acres thus far to the structure, have denounced it as a thinly veiled land grab.

Abu Libdeh said Sunday's vote on the barrier makes it more difficult for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to convince his people to trade violence for negotiations.

"The impact will be further confiscation of lands, further suffocation of the people and further disbelief that Israel is serious about peace," he said of the latest approved segment of the 425-mile barrier, which is roughly a third complete.

While Sunday's vote effectively quashed Sharon's political opponents, one potential hurdle remains, a vote in March on the national budget. If he loses, which at this point appears unlikely, Sharon's government would fall and the measures approved Sunday would stall.


(Churgin is a special correspondent.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050218 Gaza pullout

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

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