Sharon to brief U.S. on plan to evacuate settlements


JERUSALEM - Three senior U.S. officials arrived in Israel yesterday to hear details of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposals to evacuate nearly all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank.

Sharon, who is to meet with the officials today, is eager to enlist U.S. support for his plan, part of a unilateral "disengagement" that would set new boundaries with the Palestinians.

But even as Sharon worked to generate American support, the International Red Cross, in a rare public statement, criticized a separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, saying it creates hardships for Palestinians and goes "far beyond what is permissible for an occupying power under international humanitarian law."

The International Court of Justice in The Hague will conduct hearings on the legality of the barrier next week.

The visiting U.S. officials are Elliot Abrams, director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council; Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser; and William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. They met yesterday with Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass.

According to Israeli news reports, the Bush administration is pressing Israel to coordinate its planned moves with the Palestinian Authority to prevent a takeover by Hamas and other militant groups after a possible Gaza pullout.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, that the authority is prepared to take control in areas vacated by Israel, but he called for an international force to help keep the peace.

Jibril Rajoub, security adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the authority would not allow a violent takeover by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and that he had received assurances from the group's leaders that it had no intention of trying to seize power.

The Bush administration is also pushing Israel to link its planned pullback to the "road map" peace plan drawn up by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. The plan outlines reciprocal moves to end violence and renew negotiations leading to the creation of a Palestinian state. However the plan has stalled in recent months.

Sharon has said that he will take unilateral steps if he judges the road map to have failed.

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