Monday, 21 February 2005

Israeli cabinet agrees to Gaza withdrawal

Monday, February 21, 2005 - Page A1

Special to The Globe and Mail

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed a historic decree last night ordering Israeli settlers to quit the Gaza Strip by July 20.

Earlier yesterday, the Israel cabinet voted 17-5 in favour of a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank.

The vote came after Israel's approval last week of a financial compensation package for departing settlers.

The Israeli cabinet also approved a more controversial measure: a new route for the so-called security barrier in the West Bank, but one that encompasses more than 6 per cent of West Bank land, including the large Jewish settlement blocs of Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim, both near Jerusalem.

"Israel is creating facts on the ground in the West Bank," Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said. "Sharon wants payback in the West Bank for the disengagement from Gaza, particularly Jerusalem."

The route, changed after intervention by the Israeli High Court, brings the barrier closer to the old Green Line border, but will still leave about 7 per cent of the West Bank and 10,000 Palestinian residents on the Israeli side.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat warned that Israel's insistence on building the barrier "will undermine efforts being exerted to revive the peace process."

Mr. Sharon described the decision to evacuate the settlements as "a vital step for the future of the state of Israel.

"I am convinced that the step which was taken today is the right one in ensuring the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic state," he said.

The vote came amid growing signs of hope in the age-old conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. For the first time, an Egyptian newspaper published an interview with Mr. Sharon, and Jordan returned its ambassador to Tel Aviv after a four-year absence. Egypt has also named its new ambassador.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said his people would bid farewell to the Israeli occupiers with "flowers."

The militant Hamas group hailed the disengagement decision as a victory, calling it the "fruit of Palestinian resistance."

Israel also announced it would release a first group of 500 Palestinian prisoners today and allow several exiles to return to the West Bank.

A group of 16 suspected Palestinian militants banished to Gaza were welcomed back to Ramallah by Mr. Abbas yesterday.

"This is the beginning of the freedom of all the Palestinians who were transferred to Gaza and outside of Palestine," Mr. Abbas told them.

"Our agreement with Israel is to bring all of you back, and I think in the next two weeks everyone will be able to come to their homes. We promised our people that you would come back and that has happened," he said.

Yesterday's cabinet vote was the first time Israel has agreed to remove permanent settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Israeli decision comes two weeks after a summit meeting between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas, which ended the four-year intifada.

About 7,000 settlers in 18 communities, the oldest of them established in 1972, and a large army garrison will quit the Gaza Strip, leaving the area completely under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Four settlements in the northern West Bank will also be abandoned.

Settler leaders vowed to mount a defiant, but non-violent, struggle against the decision.

"We have reached the day where we now have to gather everyone together to fight against this law, and we must do it in such a way that it is not violent and that no one will raise their hand against a soldier or police officer," settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said. "It is a difficult struggle. We must wreck the implementation of this law and do everything we can to ensure that this law will not be enacted."

"This will not be an easy day, nor will it be a happy day," Mr. Sharon told the cabinet before the vote.

"The evacuation of communities from Gaza and northern Samaria is a very difficult step. It is difficult for the residents, for the citizens of Israel and for me, and I am certain that it is difficult for the members of the cabinet."

The five ministers opposing the withdrawal were led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon's main rival for the leadership of the Likud Party.

"I believe that a national referendum is the only thing that can stop the division that is tearing apart our people," Mr. Netanyahu said. "I am voting according to my conscience against the plan since it is not being accompanied by a decision to hold a national referendum."

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