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Sharon Aims to Begin Pullout From Gaza in May or June ’05

By Greg Myre

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday that he wanted to begin withdrawing Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip next May or June and complete the pullout within three months.

Sharon’s comments to a closed session of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Israeli parliament represented the most specific date he had given for the Gaza evacuation. The Israeli news media reported the remarks, which also were confirmed by participants at the session.

Sharon still must win approval for the plan in parliament, which is scheduled to bring it up for debate and a vote on Oct. 25. The prime minister suffered a symbolic defeat on Monday when legislators conducted a nonbinding vote and rejected his policy speech opening the current session of parliament. The speech was largely devoted to the Gaza withdrawal.

To protest the Gaza pullout, the Yesha Council, the main group representing the Israeli settlers, said it had organized 100 rallies across the country on Thursday night, including one near Sharon’s official residence in Jerusalem. About two-thirds of Israelis support Sharon’s plan, opinion surveys show, but the settlers have been conducting large demonstrations to build opposition to it.

Sharon is calling for the evacuation of all 8,000 settlers in Gaza and several hundred in the West Bank, though he also seeks to consolidate Israel’s control of the larger West Bank settlements.

He also said Thursday that the Israeli offensive in northern Gaza, which began more than two weeks ago, would be sustained as long as Palestinians continued to fire rockets at Israeli communities.

The Israeli military killed five Palestinians in airstrikes on Thursday, Palestinian hospital officials and witnesses said.

In the Jabaliya refugee camp, the main focus of the Israeli incursion, the air force killed two militants planting a bomb, military people and Palestinians in the camp said.