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More West Bank settlements may be abandoned, Sharon says

NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza Strip—Military trucks loaded with concrete barriers and corrugated moving cartons filed into Israeli-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip on Friday, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled that additional Jewish outposts could be surrendered.

Also flowing into the tense area: thousands of young, angry opponents of the Sharon government's plan to close all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, beginning next week.

In another key development, a private fund bought most of the Israeli greenhouses in Gaza and announced that they'd be turned over to Palestinians, preserving at least 3,000 much-needed jobs in the economically depressed area between Israel and Egypt.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority said it had consistently asserted its right to determine the fate of the farms and other "colonial assets."

"We are pleased that we will be able to decide what to do with them," said Palestinian attorney Michael Tarazi. "It is somewhat obscene that settlers are being given compensation when Palestinian refugees have not been compensated for years."

Each Israeli family that obeys the government's orders to leave Gaza will receive as much as $300,000 under Sharon's plan, but many families are resisting and more may face the same wrenching choice.

Asked about the future of other settlements, Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that "the settlement blocs will remain."

"I have never given an answer to the question of where the boundaries of the settlement blocs lie," he said. "And it is not because I am not familiar with the map."

But when asked specifically about the three small settlements of Yitzhar, Beracha and Shavei Shomron in the West Bank, between Israel and Jordan, he said: "Not everything will be (under Israeli control). The question will arise at the last stage of negotiations with the Palestinians."

As many as 55,000 Israeli soldiers and police officers are expected to participate in the forced evacuation of Israelis from Gaza. Under the government's plan, they'll be told on Monday that they have 48 hours to leave. Then they'll be subject to forced removal.

Though some residents have left already, an estimated 4,000 remain, and they're augmented by a growing army of outside supporters, now estimated at 5,000 or more. Most are young and many are militant, convinced that withdrawal from Gaza is tantamount to a capitulation to terrorism.

Many gathered on Friday in the public square of Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in the region. They listened to folk music, shared snacks and played with village children.

"We can't allow violence to win," said Orit Arfa, who's originally from Los Angeles, now a resident of Tel Aviv, and a recent enlistee in the resistance at Neve Dekalim. "This is important not just for Israelis but for Americans, too."

Around her wrist she wore a bright orange band that said, "Gush Kativ Forever." Gush Kativ is the main Israeli region of Gaza; orange is the color of the resistance.

Sharon and supporters of withdrawal have said that unilateral withdrawal is the only remaining choice.

"The disengagement plan was born because there was no one to talk to on the Palestinian side," Sharon told Yediot Ahronot. "I thought that maybe, just maybe, disengagement would cause there to be someone to talk to."

He was asked: Any regrets?

"I have no regrets," he said. "Even if I knew the scope of opposition in advance, I would still do it."

To resolve the greenhouse issue, U.S. mediator James Wolfensohn raised about $14 million in private donations, much of it from Americans, and transferred it to a Tel Aviv-based foundation founded in part by Yossi Beilin, the leader of the dovish Israeli Yahad Party.

The Economic Cooperation Foundation bought the 750 acres of farms and greenhouses and will transfer them to Palestinian control, Beilin said.

"It is one of the examples, one may say, that it is proven that an agreement between the two sides is better than a unilateral decision," said Beilin, a key negotiator in the Oslo and Geneva peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

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(Merzer reports for The Miami Herald, Hoffman reports for the Contra Costa Times.)

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

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

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