Israel approves barrier, pullout

JERUSALEM - In decisions apparently aimed at shaping future Israeli-Palestinian borders, Israel's Cabinet approved yesterday the removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank and decided that the separation barrier should enclose two large settlements in the West Bank.

The decision on the withdrawal carried little suspense - 17 of 22 ministers voted in favor - but plenty of historical significance: It was the first time that Israel has ordered the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza from land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

The decision allows the government to send eviction notices to about 8,500 Jews in 21 settlements in Gaza and four tiny communities in the West Bank.

Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed orders giving the settlers five months to leave.

"It isn't an easy day. It isn't a happy day," said Sharon, who was long a champion of the settler movement but unveiled the withdrawal plan last year. The prime minister said in a speech late yesterday that the decision was his "most difficult" in a career that has spanned more than five decades as a military and political leader.

Israel abandoned more than a dozen settlements in 1982 under terms of its peace treaty with Egypt, but those were in the Sinai Peninsula.

"There is no cause for dismissing the importance of the moment: a new chapter in the history of the Middle East is going to be written," Shimon Shiffer wrote in yesterday's editions of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

The Cabinet votes on the withdrawal and the barrier offer a glimpse at Sharon's strategy. He has argued in favor of evacuating hard-to-defend settlements in Gaza and focusing instead on solidifying Israel's grip on Jewish population centers in the West Bank.

Analysts said the timing of the votes seemed to be aimed at blunting international criticism over the barrier, which as approved will dip into the West Bank to encompass two Jewish settlement blocs that are home to an estimated 85,000 people.

Under the route approved yesterday, the barrier would enclose the suburb Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and a large cluster of settlements south of Jerusalem called Gush Etzion.

The phased pullout is to begin July 20. The Cabinet is required to assess conditions on the ground and vote before each stage of the four-part withdrawal. But officials said the decision to evacuate has been made.

Supporters of the pullout said they hope the Cabinet vote will prompt holdout settlers to prepare to leave voluntarily. Israeli officials hope to reduce the prospect of violent removals by getting residents to leave on their own.

"Now it's up to all of us, all of us and not just the government - also the opponents - to show restraint, patience and tolerance," said Vice Premier Ehud Olmert.

The Cabinet vote is among the last major governmental hurdles for Sharon's plan. Last week, the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, approved legislation that will provide financial compensation to settlers who must evacuate their homes.

Sharon must pass a 2005 budget by March 31 to avoid early elections, which probably would disrupt the pullout. So far, the prime minister lacks the votes to pass his spending plan.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted against the withdrawal, saying he wants the issue put to a referendum. But Sharon has said that would delay or scuttle the pullout.

Netanyahu, whose core supporters are conservatives opposed to an evacuation, has sent conflicting signals for months. At some points, he voted in favor of the plan. But at others, Netanyahu appeared ready to put his job on the line to try to force a referendum, only to relent. His vote yesterday was seen by many as a way to solidify his hold on the right for a possible future challenge to Sharon's leadership of their Likud Party.

Settlers, who once revered Sharon as the patron of their movement, found little to celebrate. Leaders repeated calls for civil disobedience, saying that the Gaza evacuation plan lacks legitimacy because it was not put to a referendum.

"Those who voted to approve the transfer will be remembered as destroyers just like previous destroyers," the main settler group, the Yesha Council, said in a statement. "Sharon's government has turned into a leftist government whose goal is to erase the Jewish settlements."

Palestinian officials said Israel's decision to continue building the West Bank separation barrier harms nascent peace efforts by drawing de facto borders. Palestinians have argued that the barrier amounts to a land grab and sets borders before a comprehensive agreement can be struck.

"Any construction in the occupied territories is contrary to attempts to revive the peace process," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.

Military planners revised the barrier's route to comply with a decision last June in which Israel's Supreme Court held that segments in the West Bank violate Palestinian rights.

The section approved yesterday was shifted closer to Israel proper, taking a smaller bite of the West Bank than envisioned. The barrier would envelop nearly 8 percent of the West Bank area envisioned for a future Palestinian state, about half the amount called for under previous plans. Under the new route, about 10,000 Palestinians would remain on the Israeli side of the divider.

Israel contends that the more than 400-mile partition - a mix of fences, concrete walls, trenches, patrol roads and surveillance equipment - is needed to keep out suicide bombers and other attackers. Officials say attacks have decreased in areas where the barrier is finished. The project is about one-third complete.

Israel says parts of the barrier could be removed if they intrude on borders determined through negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israel expects to retain major Jewish settlement blocs under any negotiated accord, a position endorsed last year by President Bush. In backing a Gaza withdrawal, Bush said "realities on the ground" made it unrealistic to expect Israel to give up all of the West Bank.

The Israeli barrier was found illegal last year by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled that it hindered Palestinians' freedom of movement and was tantamount to annexation.

But Israeli officials have dismissed the nonbinding decision as politically motivated and said the world court lacks jurisdiction.

In other developments, Jordan returned its ambassador to Israel for the first time since the outbreak of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians in September 2000.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.