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Sharon to Plan Removal of 17 Settlements From Gaza Strip

By James Bennet

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that he might seek to evacuate almost all Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, outraging members of the settlement movement that he helped create.

“I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza,” Sharon told the liberal daily Haaretz. He made similar comments in a tense meeting of legislators from his Likud Party, people who took part said.

It was Sharon’s most specific disclosure about what he calls “unilateral disengagement” from the Palestinians, a step that he has said he will take if he judges that the Bush administration’s peace initiative, known as the road map, has failed.

Sharon said he had given orders to plan for the evacuation of 17 of at least 20 settlements in Gaza. But his spokesman, Ranaan Gissin, cautioned that this was the most far-reaching of three options that Sharon was preparing to submit for the approval of his Cabinet.

“It may be less settlements that have to be evacuated,” Gissin said. “We have to prepare for an interim plan that will maximize security for our citizens and minimize friction with the Palestinians.”

Sharon set no time line for a withdrawal, though his allies said it could begin by summer. His opponents on the right and skeptics on the left were quick to accuse him of posturing to divert public attention from a bribery investigation. Sharon has not been charged in the scandal.

Settlers warned of political action to bring down Sharon’s government, but far-right parties did not immediately bolt his governing coalition, an indication that they did not consider action against settlements to be imminent or inevitable.

Palestinian officials suggested that the announcement might be nothing more than a public relations maneuver.

In the last 18 months Sharon has made a series of statements that have alarmed longtime allies on the right.