Withdrawal moving forward, Sharon says

Prime minister orders Israeli officials to work with Palestinian leaders


JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that he had instructed his government to begin coordinating with Palestinian leaders on Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Sharon, who a year ago announced his intention to pull all Israeli settlers out of Gaza unilaterally, insisting he had no Palestinian partner while Yasser Arafat remained alive, expressed eagerness to work with Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, on returning Gaza to Palestinian control. Arafat died in November.

Sharon and Abbas announced a truce last week but the violence has not stopped entirely. Last night Israeli troops killed two armed Palestinians near a Jewish settlement in Nablus, in the West Bank. Earlier, a Palestinian teenager was shot dead near Ramallah.

Sharon, in a rare news conference here, rejected criticism from the settlers and right-wing opponents of the withdrawal that he was getting nothing in return for the Gaza evacuation.

"I think Israel got many things and many important things," he said. The new Palestinian leadership "understands the dangers of terror" and is willing to coordinate with Israel on security issues as well as the disengagement, he said, so he is more confident that the withdrawal will take place peacefully and quickly.

"I'd like the territory we're leaving not in the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but in the hands of the Palestinian Authority," the government that Abbas leads.

But Sharon warned that if Israeli forces or settlers are attacked, "our reaction will have to be very harsh and hard."

He insisted that his agreement on Gaza with President Bush at the White House last April provided assurances that Israel would be able to keep some of its large blocks of settlements in the West Bank. He also repeated his understanding that the United States supported Israel in limiting a right of return for Palestinian refugees to a future Palestinian state.

Sharon laid out a long set of conditions for Syria to meet before Israel would resume peace negotiations over the Golan Heights. The talks broke down five years ago but Syria has asked to resume them.

Sharon said that before new talks could begin, Syria would have to shut down the offices of terrorist groups within its territory, end its occupation of Lebanon, allow Lebanese forces to take control of the border with Israel and stop acts of aggression against Israel.

He said he did not know who was behind Monday's assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. "We don't know yet who has done this," Sharon said. But, noting Syrian control of Lebanon, he said, "This only emphasizes the need to be very, very careful on our steps toward peace and to do it in stages, in order to be sure that the development really moves us to the peace."

Sharon also said Israel had failed in its efforts to stop a planned Russian sale of sophisticated SA-18 shoulder-to-air missiles to Syria, a concern also for Washington. He said the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, had told Israel that the sales would go ahead but that the weapons would not be transferred from the Syrian military to groups in conflict with Israel, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

"But we are concerned about that," Sharon said.

He said he was deeply upset about threats to the lives of senior Israeli officials from Israeli militants who oppose pulling the 8,500 Israeli settlers out of Gaza and a few hundred from the West Bank.

"My own personal safety doesn't affect me or my plans," he said, but "I view these threats very gravely. Such threats are intolerable."

Security around Sharon is extraordinarily tight, and guards have recently been placed around the grave of his wife, Lily, after threats that her gravesite might be desecrated, the Israeli news media have reported.

In other violence yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot two Palestinians carrying rifles and approaching the settlement of Bracha, the military said. Palestinian militants said the two men, who belonged to Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, were guarding an abandoned building when they were shot without provocation, the Associated Press reported.

Earlier a Palestinian teenager, Ala Hani, was killed in Beitunia, just outside Ramallah, as he and other youths threw stones at Israeli troops passing in a patrol vehicle, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.

The Israeli Army said it was investigating the report but was not aware of any shooting in Beitunia involving the army.

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