A Gaza without settlers?

Sharon's plan would evict all 7,500 Israeli settlers from 17 Gaza settlements.

It has been nearly a quarter century since Israel physically uprooted a settlement built beyond its pre-1967 borders. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a chief draftsman of Israel's drive to settle lands occupied during the 1967 Six Day War, says he is now prepared to up stakes throughout the Gaza Strip - part of his plan to unilaterally disengage from the Palestinians.

"This is the first time of evacuating settlements - not illegal ones, and not outposts, and not just one," says Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. "Perhaps one day we can look back and say here the reverse began."

Mr. Sharon's proposal to create peace without partners could implode from the pressure on it by nearly all sides. Although the 7,500 Israeli settlers in Gaza are a small contingent relative to the more than 200,000 in the West Bank, Sharon faces outrage from the pro-settlement right-wing parties; their withdrawal from government could trigger new elections. He faces skepticism from the Israeli left, which says Sharon is just trying to distract attention from his mounting legal woes.

And he faces resistance from the US, which can't decide what to do with a plan that ignores reciprocal formulas built into Washington's moribund road map plan for peace.

Despite the skepticism about the plan to remove the 17 settlements amid some 1.2 million Palestinians, some people here say Sharon is dead serious.

"He knows that if he is understood as the only Israeli politician who can withdraw from Gaza, then the encouragement to take a step against him will diminish: Anyone who does will be seen as standing in the path of the historical bulldozer who is ready to take the Israeli people out of the Gaza Strip," says Mr. Klein.

The last and only time Israel evacuated a settlement was in 1979, when Yammit was removed from the Sinai, which Israel returned to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords. Since his election three years ago, Sharon has been promising settlers that he would never agree to evacuate them. He has also refused attempts to negotiate with Palestinian leaders while acts of terrorism against Israelis continue, which makes his decision to float his evacuation plan now - days after a ghastly suicide bombing - all the more remarkable.

Sharon's calculations, says Klein, are not tied to the latest events - but the broader outlook in Israel and the sense of failure to quash the Palestinian intifada, ignited in September 2000. "Senior members of the Israel establishment, including the security services and the military, have put pressure on Sharon to do something," says Klein.

The battle over population demographics also plays a key role in Sharon's decision, say observers. If Israel can't reach a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and does not withdraw from Palestinian population centers in the next 15 years, Arabs will outnumber Jews in the area of historical Palestine - from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. The Arab birthrate could eventually bring about Israel's downfall - or at least end its ability to cleave to democratic ideals within Jewish statehood.

But below the surface, many observers here see shorter-term motivations. Sharon, who is due to visit Washington next week, has been searching for a way to give what he hopes will be a well-appreciated boost to the Bush administration's foreign policy record by showing positive movement in the Middle East. Moreover, the very concept of Israel's staunchest hawk pulling out of occupied territory may boost Sharon's case as he gets closer to what looks likely to be a bruising international trial in The Hague later this month against Israel's construction of the separation barrier. The International Court of Justice is due to start hearing the case against the separation barrier at the end of February.

Critics also argue that Sharon would rather focus on the big picture than his not-so-small problems at home: the prime minister will be questioned again by police Thursday in a widening corruption investigation.

"People on the right and left see that obviously, this is connected to Sharon's attempt to extricate himself from his legal problems," says Dror Etkes, who is with Peace Now's Settlement Watch team, which supports the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"There's an obvious relation between those two things," Mr. Etkes adds. "Why Gaza and why now? I think Sharon understands that the real fight is over the West Bank. That's where the water is, the history, the archaeology, where most of the settlers are."

The Israeli public looks likely to sign off on his approach. The settlements in Gaza are not deeply popular, are seen as a military liability, and are not seen as part of Israel's biblical birthright in the way those in the West Bank are. A poll by the Yediot Aharonot newspaper released Tuesday found that 59 percent of respondents supported Sharon's plan.

But Israeli settlers still believe they have the upper hand - and say they're launching a nationwide campaign to stop Sharon's plan.

"I believe that we need only to ask the members in Knesset who support us to leave the coalition immediately," says Pinchas Wallerstein, a leading figure in the group Yesha, which represents all 150 Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

A parliamentary vote is required to uproot any settlements.

"I have been working with Sharon at least 25 years, I don't think there was a settlement that I was involved in founding without the help of Ariel Sharon," says Mr. Wallerstein. But people also remember what he did in Yammit, and so we know he has the power to do things he said he wouldn't do."

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