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After Israeli Cabinet Approval, Withdrawal from Gaza Seems Real

February 22, 2005
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The Israeli government has set the clock ticking toward the first removal of Jewish settlements in nearly a quarter of a century. By a 17-5 vote Sunday, the Cabinet approved Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in a bid to withdraw from conflict with the Palestinians. Within hours, a solemn-faced Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz signed eviction orders for 8,500 settlers.

“Everyone understands that this is a painful and difficult step, and we are speaking of people, many of whom are among the best we have in Israel, who settled and built and worked despite difficult terror for many years,” Sharon told reporters.

“It is as difficult plan — for the settlers, certainly, and for me in particular.”

At the same time, Israel has continued its efforts to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, releasing 500 Palestinian prisoners Monday after they signed agreements not to engage in terrorism. Another 400 prisoners are to go free in the coming weeks once the release roster is finalized.

Despite months of increasingly vocal — and sometimes violent — protests, the settlers and their right-wing backers in Israel were largely silent at the Cabinet vote, which set in motion preparations for beginning the pullbacks on July 20.

Some were rethinking strategies. Others were just stunned.

“My heart has died,” Shuki Attias of the Rafiah Yam settlement in Gaza told Ma’ariv. “Up until now, I was in a sort of euphoria, believing this evacuation would just disappear. But now, a day after the Cabinet decision, I finally understood. I am just now beginning to process the fact this will happen.”

Israel’s media carried reports accusing Jewish extremists of planning to shut down Israeli public services — by sabotaging train lines, for example — in a last-ditch effort to stop the withdrawals.

But a more above-board campaign was still in full swing, the call for a referendum on the first evacuation of settlers since Israel withdrew from the Sinai in the early 1980s under its peace deal with Egypt.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted against the disengagement plan because Sharon refused to grant a referendum on the matter. Other “rebels” in the ruling Likud Party said they would continue demanding the referendum until the prime minister folds.

But Sharon has ruled out a referendum as a waste of time and money — and a move that could undermine the democratic process.

An unscientific poll run on the Web site of Yediot Achronot, Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper, found that 64 percent of Israelis back the withdrawal plan while 36 are opposed. The Haifa councilman who commissioned the survey said it showed a referendum to be unnecessary.

In another move less welcomed by the Palestinians, the Cabinet approved a redrafted route for the security fence. The new route gives Israel 7 percent of the West Bank rather than the 16 percent originally planned, but still guarantees an Israeli hold on Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

The Palestinian Authority’s core decision-making body, the PLO executive committee, condemned the route as a “big crime.” The Palestinians want all of the West Bank for a state. That’s something Israel — with the backing of President Bush — rules out.

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