Sharon may move thousands of settlers

Israel would set borders, disengage in West Bank, Gaza if peace plan falters

December 22, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would have to be evacuated if Israel carries out its plan to disengage from the Palestinians and declare provisional borders, Israel's vice premier said yesterday.

Ehud Olmert's comments gave the first indication of how many settlers might be displaced under a plan that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled Thursday at a conference on security.

Sharon said the plan would be carried out only if there is no progress on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan in the next few months.

"We have to think about how to change the status quo to reach our fundamental goal of security," Olmert told an assembly of foreign reporters yesterday. Olmert is a Cabinet minister in charge of industry and trade, but also serves as Sharon's deputy and confidant.

Olmert was the first high-ranking official in Sharon's government to float the idea of disengagement, under which Israel would draw a border putting as many Jewish settlers as possible on the Israeli side.

Israel is building a security barrier that is encroaching on Palestinian land. It is designed to jut around large Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians envision as part of their future state.

Still, dozens of smaller Jewish settlements inhabited by tens of thousands would fall outside the proposed border and would have to be removed. That would give the Palestinians a contiguous state without settlements, but on considerably less land than is called for under the road map.

Efforts to set up face-to-face talks between Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia continued yesterday, and officials on both sides said a meeting is possible this week or next.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army continued operations in the West Bank city of Nablus, where Palestinians said the military arrested Adnan Asfour, regional head of the militant group Hamas.

Also yesterday, Palestinians said Israeli soldiers killed a 5-year-old boy when they opened fire on a group of stone-throwers in a refuge camp on the outskirts of Nablus. The boy's family said he was holding a sandwich; the army said troops fired after someone in the crowd threw an explosive device.

Meanwhile, Israel's separation plan is being attacked from all sides. Palestinians view Sharon's plan as a threat. U.S. officials have expressed concern that unilateral action would lead to more strife. And the Israeli right says Sharon is abandoning the dream of a Greater Israel stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Groups representing the 230,000 settlers in Gaza and the West Bank are preparing for a fight against a Sharon government that they say has surrendered to the Palestinians and to three years of violence.

"I hope that the Likud Party will punish Mr. Olmert," said Pinchas Wallerstein, a former spokesman for the largest settlement group, Yesha, and the head of a regional council that represents 32 settlements north of Jerusalem. He was referring to the rightist party of Olmert and Sharon, which is split over the disengagement plan.

"I'm worried about the declaration from the prime minister," Wallerstein said in a telephone interview. "He wants to do it, there is no doubt in my mind. I will do the best so that he will not be able to do it - to call people in Israel to be wherever there is a decision to transfer or remove Jews."

But Olmert said yesterday that Sharon's plan is not a new idea. He said Likud agreed to swap land for peace when it accepted the road map this year and the Oslo interim accords in the mid-1990s.

"Back then, we fundamentally accepted the idea that the concept of Greater Israel will not be realized," he said. "We did not use terminology like dividing the country, but the Likud government's acceptance of Oslo could only mean one thing: that we were ready to compromise on the state of Israel."

Olmert said the road map deserves another chance. But he also said he does not believe that the Palestinians will be able to dismantle militant groups and stop suicide bombings.

He differs from Sharon on a key aspect of the plan: The prime minister wants to disengage in stages, while Olmert prefers pulling out of the West Bank and Gaza all at once.

In his speech Thursday, Sharon refused to name settlements that would be affected or to divulge numbers. But it is clear that the largest settlements, even those deep in the West Bank, would remain intact on the Israeli side of the border.

Reporters pressed Olmert for specifics on how many settlers would be uprooted. At one point, he said: "It is certainly a lot more than in the thousands. It's probably in the tens of thousands."

Olmert's statement was based on demographic assessments that the number of Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel will surpass the number of Jews in Israel by 2020. Olmert said Israel cannot police the Palestinians or occupy their cities forever, and that should they one day decide to assimilate into Israel, the concept of a Jewish state would be lost.

Unilateral separation, Olmert said, would create "an entirely new environment that will make our political life, our international relations and our internal life much more comfortable. By reducing the everyday friction, the level of terror will obviously be much smaller."

Sharon has often talked of his willingness to make "painful concessions" to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians, but has refused to say what they are. Olmert said yesterday that Sharon means giving up the idea of Greater Israel.

"The process will be a very painful, difficult, heartbreaking process - a confrontation of unknown proportions," Olmert said. "I truly believe that the history of the Jewish people is buried in the ground of these territories. To pull out is very painful."

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