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As Talk of Gaza Withdrawal Heats Up, Sharon Wants His Ministers at Home

If Ariel Sharon is going to sweat this summer over his disengagement plan from the Palestinians, he won’t be alone. The Israeli prime minister told government colleagues Sunday to limit their vacation time abroad to ensure full and supportive turnout for any discussions on withdrawing troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005.

“I instructed those heading the committees to begin work immediately and without delay, in order to keep to the timetable set by the plan,” Sharon said at his weekly Cabinet meeting. “I will not accept a situation whereby members of government abstain from votes, or this or that deputy minister speaks out against the resolution.”

With hard-won government approval for his Gaza plan in hand, Sharon means business.

He is not alone. Dozens of settlers from Gaza and four West Bank communities slated for removal already have contacted the Prime Minister’s Office in hope of availing them! selves of a $300,000-per-family relocation package, according media reports.

Compensation can be claimed as early as this August, officials said, and settlers who do not voluntarily move to Israel proper within 13 months will be evacuated forcibly from their homes. With the Yesha settlers council claiming that most settlers slated for evacuation have signed a declaration declaring they will stay put no matter what, the specter of violent confrontations looms large for Sharon.

But the prime minister has been bolstered by the international community.

Last Friday, Sharon took a call from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulating him on his efforts to disengage Israel from the Palestinians after three and a half years of dead-end conflict. Annan offered any assistance necessary in implementing the Gaza plan and, according to Jerusalem sources, Sharon has not ruled out a U.N. peacekeeping role in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Hamas has vowed to continue terrorizing Israe! lis regardless of the disengagement plan.

“We will continue the st ruggle against Israel even after it pulls back,” Mahmoud Al-Zahar, acting head of the Islamist group, said at a conference of Palestinian factions in Gaza City on Saturday.

But aides to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who attended the meeting, were more upbeat, saying politics could sidetrack Hamas from its jihad.

“Dr. Zahar said his organization will take part in elections after the withdrawal and will be willing to take part in the leadership that arises in Gaza,” one Palestinian official told Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot.

Egypt, too, may serve as a mediating force during a withdrwal. It has offered to send security advisers to Gaza to bolster Palestinian security forces to the point where they could take on Hamas after an Israeli pullback.

Many Palestinians view stability as key to attracting foreign donor money to rehabilitate Gaza’s Palestinians.

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